Earlier this year, I watched The Sopranos for the first time. Even though it ended more than a decade ago, it felt relevant in a way few other shows do. Likely you’ve noticed that the news is full of people who are, essentially, mobsters, and so watching this show about mobsters felt like seeing the origin story of our present moment. Mobsters, gangsters, the Mafia – these are archetypal figures in American culture, and at this moment, it is fair to say that Tony Soprano looms the largest out of them all. A major part of what makes Tony so resonant is his own sense of belatedness, of arriving too late. He is not, and never will be, one of the Goodfellas, and this failure to measure up to the greats of the past rhymes with the wider national mood, the feeling that our best days behind us.
Martin Scorsese, along with Francis Ford Coppola, did as much as anyone to cement the mobster archetype that Tony Soprano felt he couldn’t live up to. Films like Goodfellas and Casino presented mobsters as good ole boys, hanging out and having fun. Sure, they were also morally bankrupt individuals with no real friends, but Tony always skipped over such insights to quote the best lines with his buddies. Now, in this post-Sopranos world, Scorsese is back with another decade-spanning mobster saga, reflecting on the strange legacy of this deeply American genre.
Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a truck driver in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the local mob, and begins doing jobs for him. Transportation, at first, then intimidation, then outright murder. In a voiceover, Sheeran recounts this escalation with as much drama as you’d give a job promotion at Walmart. His bona fides proven, Bufalino recommends him to one of the most powerful figures in the country: Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leader of the Teamsters Union, which, at its peak, had more than a million members. If you wanted to hire a truck to transport goods across the burgeoning U.S. highway system, you went to the Teamsters. Thanks to enforcers like Sheeran, they were the only game in town.
The Irishman is a sprawling film, running three and a half hours and covering almost 50 years of U.S. history, but the feel is still remarkably intimate. The relationship triangle between Sheeran, Hoffa and Bufalino pushes and pulls, goes slack and goes tense, as deals are made and loyalties tested. Familiar mobster territory. But Scorsese’s approach to his protagonist is vastly different than The Sopranos, and it reveals something about his approach to the story.
Tony Soprano embodied the antihero archetype so popular during the Golden Age of TV. No matter what he did, there was something magnetic about him that caused viewers to root for him.
Sheeran has little of that magnetism. His voiceover rarely rises to the rhetorical heights of Tony’s laments that the world isn’t what it used to be. Instead, Sheeran recounts his life story almost as if it happened to someone else, a story he heard in a bar somewhere, its emotional implications never quite reaching him.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Sheeran eventually has to kill someone he considers a friend. He may not want to do it, but he doesn’t put up much of a fight. He’s a soldier, after all. Following orders is what made him successful in this kind of life. But when he does go through the deed, you want him to have a big reaction of some sort. Yell at someone, punch someone, run his hand through the wall. Give the viewer some kind of dramatic action that will tell us what he’s feeling.
But De Niro’s performance is distinctly lacking those typical mobster histrionics. That so many of the familiar pleasures of the mob movie are denied to us in The Irishman makes you wonder what, exactly, Scorsese is trying to say with this movie. In all likelihood, this will be his last movie about the mob, and it ends, as in the T.S. Eliot poem, not with a bang, but a whimper.
The standard read would be to say that Scorsese has some regrets about contributing to the popularity of the mob genre. With the whole world gone thuggish, perhaps he believes he was mistaken to make movies that others took as celebrations of corruption. But I don’t think that’s accurate. The Irishman doesn’t have the feel of someone settling scores as the game winds to a close. The mood is more of an elegy than a jeremiad.
HIS BETTER NATURE
A clue as to what Scorsese is up to could be found in the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy. She is the only member of Frank’s family that he seems to register, and even then, it’s not what you would call understanding. She loves Hoffa, and is scared of Bufalino. This mirrors the struggle within Frank himself, the loyalty to the man who’s the closest thing he has to a friend, and the man who made him into a killer in the first place.
This is not the first time that a mobster has looked to his daughter to act as a mirror to his better nature. The relationship between Tony Soprano and his daughter, Meadow, was one of affection, tenderness and wariness. Tony saw the best of himself in Meadow, and consequently worked hard to make sure she didn’t become aware of the worst of himself. Keeping her innocent of his crimes was a form of compartmentalization for Tony. Meadow, for all of the academic abilities she displayed in college, never truly saw her father for the murderer he was.
Peggy has no such illusions. She knows exactly the kind of monster her father has become. The awareness starts at a young age, when she sees Frank beat a local grocer after he shoved her while she was picking up milk. He stomps on the man while Peggy looks on, mute with horror. Muteness becomes her main form of defense, and eventually the weapon she wields against her father. Later in life, where Peggy is played by Anna Paquin, she becomes a kind of silent accuser, staring at her father across the dinner table, offering no words of comfort, seeing him for who he is. Peggy is the one good thing Frank did in his life, and she rejects him.
One of the central tensions of the mobster movie is the question of how attractive mobsters really are. Yes, they kill indiscriminately, even those they love, but there is still something compelling about watching them go about their business, watching them cross line after line. This is why endings are so tricky. Does he get away with it? Does he get his comeuppance? In Goodfellas, Scorsese’s answer to this question was to have Ray Liotta’s character end up as a house cat, relocated to the suburbs by witness protection after being forced to rat out his associates. He lost his honour, sure, but he was still alive, and still had his family.
Sheeran does get away with his crimes, more or less. Aside from a brief stint in jail, his major crimes go unpunished. But he has no family left. The friends and associates he did have are all dead. At the end, he is alone in a nursing home, his only visitor a priest. Having abandoned the loyalty of his family for la famiglia, he is left utterly alone. For all the mob’s talk of blood, what really matters to them is money. And money, as they say, can’t buy you love. Sheeran did what he did for the sense of belonging as much as for money, but in the end, the friends he made have left him, and he has no one. It is a statement of such definitiveness that it feels like the end of a genre, the one that made Scorsese’s reputation, and now, nearing the end of his career, he closes the book on it.
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