Frank is no Joker: "The banality of evil"
It’s not surprising that Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” gives so little of its three hours and 29 minutes of screen time to women; the film’s protagonist, the Irishman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and the institutions that dominate this story—the Italian Mafia and the Teamsters—operate in male worlds, dear to the director.
Yet despite her limited role, Frank’s daughter, Peggy, is critical to shaping the viewer’s understanding of the central character. Peggy (Lucy Gallina as the young Peggy) is present for an early scene in which her father cruelly and brutally assaults the local grocer (we’re learning what Frank’s made of) for shoving Peggy when she misbehaved. Much later, after Frank has retired from the business of “painting houses”—that is, killing people—an adult Peggy (Anna Paquin) rebuffs his efforts to have a “conversation,” as if an exchange of words would somehow make her understand that her father, despite his trade, was a decent man.
The film begins and ends in an old-age home, where Frank, in a wheelchair, narrates without emotion a series of flashbacks about his extraordinary life as Mafia hitman and Jimmy Hoffa bodyguard and confidant. In spite of the extraordinary length of the film, Scorsese sustains the story-telling through a weaving of the three time-lines: the present (the old-age home) and two backstories: a young husband and father finding his vocation, and a middle-aged man on a car trip with his friend and their wives. The telling is engaging and clever; the story, of the Mafia and men who “paint houses,” is vintage Scorsese. As with Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain & Glory,” “The Irishman” lacks the innovation of the best of the accomplished director’s past films as well as the best of recent films, including “Moonlight” (2016) and this year’s “Parasite” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
When we first meet Frank, he’s a mostly satisfied union truck driver, delivering sides of beef in and around New Jersey while engaging, now and then, in the petty theft of a carcass or two. A serendipitous roadside encounter with the friendly and helpful Mafia boss Russell “Russ” Bufalino (a superb Joe Pesci) at a gas station and Stuckey’s (the locale is an intersection between the two backstories) leads to an offer to blow up things and then kill people, which Frank accepts as it were a proposal to manage a McDonald’s or, in that era, a Stuckey’s.
Although he’s an Irishman, Frank speaks a little Italian, from his days in World War II, and shares with Russ an Italian tradition bordering on the sacraments—the dipping of bread in wine. Russ understands Frank has the Italian qualities the Mafia values, even if Frank needs some education in how to tell which side a person is on, when he agrees to blow up a competing laundry service without telling Russ. Russ protects him from higher-up Mafia bosses, and later says he sees Frank as the son he never had.
Frank is equally nonplussed when, courtesy of Russ, the Hoffa opportunity comes his way. There’s no question that Frank understands what Hoffa is offering him, as Hoffa says to him, “I heard you paint houses” (the title of the book by true crime writer Charles Brandt, on which the film is based).
Frank seems not to understand that no good can come from working for two of the most difficult men of the age, one a very controlled and nice-seeming but notorious crime boss, the other the ideologically passionate but hotheaded leader of the nation’s most powerful and corrupt union (Al Pacino, whose histrionics are reminiscent of his Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon” ).
At some point, Frank will have to choose between these larger-than-life figures, one committed to his Mafia family, the other to representing the worker against rapacious capitalism. Frank can adapt to these different environments, and for a time he operates as the go-between and mediator between these worlds—the Mafia and Hoffa—but without much understanding of, or concern about, what’s at stake. One could hope that Frank would make his choice based on some value, or principle, or deeply held belief—even, one imagines, on what might be best for his family.
Instead, Scorsese—and De Niro—offer us a vivid portrait of an essentially passive, amoral man, without a core or code, lacking in substance, amiable and accommodating, willing to do almost anything, gliding through life as the emerging gangster Johnny Boy (De Niro) moved effortlessly through a phosphorescent bar in Scorsese’s breakthrough Mafia film, “Mean Streets” (1973). (Johnny Boy’s pal in “Mean Streets,” Harvey Keitel, makes an appearance in “The Irishman” to bookend Scorsese’s beginning-of-life/end-of-life Mafia tales.) De Niro’s low-affect demeanor hints at a thoughtfulness that the character does not possess; De Niro compels the audience to want to read a morality into Frank’s face, a morality that isn’t there.
Scorsese is curiously complicit in this construction of Frank, by never showing him considering what he is doing, confronting his victims, or (with one notable exception) having second thoughts. Scorsese masks Frank’s final, heinous act in ways that distance the viewer from the planning, preparation and knowledge that must have gone into it. The journey to the crime is presented as an innocent cross-country car trip, two men and their wives enjoying the American road on their way to a wedding. And in the final moments before the deed, we’re led to believe—even though we should know that Frank will survive (after all, he’s narrating all this from the nursing home)—that it’s Frank who is in mortal danger. Then there’s the entertaining but distracting scene, with dialogue ala Tarantino: while Frank has the ultimate act swirling in his head, the audience is contemplating the meaning of a conversation about a fish, and the smell in the back seat.
With all this obfuscation, and by presenting Frank as hollow and naive, Scorsese is inviting the viewer to consider a serious question: Can one do evil without being evil? It’s the same question proffered by this year’s “Joker,” and answered there in the affirmative; the Joker is mentally ill, and abused—not evil, but a victim. Scorsese doesn’t offer us that way out. Instead, he offers something akin to philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil,” a concept she first articulated in “The New Yorker” in 1961 while reporting on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes related to the Holocaust. In her essay and a 1963 book, Arendt described the man who supervised the murder of millions of Jews as “terrifyingly normal,” characterized by a “manifest shallowness,” a clueless, non-ideological person drifting into (rather than choosing) the Nazi Party.
While more recent scholarship has found Eichmann to be more ideologically driven than did Arendt, her description has relevance for Frank, whose adhesion to the Teamsters (unlike Hoffa’s) seems tepid at best, and who appears untroubled by any of the acts he commits. He has no colleagues, no friends with whom he could begin to have a discussion of what is right. The most one hears about Frank’s view of death—he’s barely an agnostic—is when he’s talking to an employee at a mortuary about his own casket. Even a Catholic priest, try as he might, fails to elicit feelings of remorse from Frank at the same time that he is confronting his own death. Unlike “Mean Streets,” in “The Irishman” there’s no Catholicism left to provide a moral grounding. Only vestiges of religion remain: two scenes in a church that are simply family gatherings (a baptism, a wedding, without moral valence), and Russ and Frank, constrained in prison to dipping their bread in grape juice.
Frank is an operative, an employee, an apparatchik and, like Eichmann, a bureaucrat at heart. The meaning of this portrait for Scorsese, and for our own time, is less clear.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Lucy Gallina, Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano
Runtime: 209 minutes