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Nothing Beside Remains: ‘The Irishman’ and the Futility of Gangster Films

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelly

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, recently arrived in much intrigue to Netflix.  Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, the story tracks Frank Sheeran’s (Robert DeNiro) reported (and disputed) confessions of murdering Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) at the behest of mob boss Russell Buficio (Joe Pesci).  Leading up to its release, cumulonimbus clouds of non-controversial controversy developed around The Irishman: ranging from the lack of speaking roles for women to Scorsese’s “hot” take on Marvel films.  Despite this turbulent tide,  Scorsese explores uncharted territory fraught in futility through a genre known for flash.

Like any forbidden fruit, gangster films must tempt and tantalize.  A handsome vehicle of vicarious viewing, this genre makes the appalling appealing.  Like Al Capano or Bonnie and Clyde or Pablo Escobar, these criminals take what they want and taunt law enforcement.  The Irishman breaks this edict by taking a no-frills approach toward depicting its characters and their underworld work.

There is no alluring Copacabana sequence (Goodfellas), operatic elimination of enemies during a christening (The Godfather) or a colorful but unhinged crime boss (The Departed).  This is a working-class mob film.  Guns are given with all the casualness of a Sunday newspaper and crimes are committed in an efficient, ho-hum manner.  Prior to his baptism into mob life, Sheeran claimed to have participated in 411 days of combat duty during World War II.  With his skewed moral compass,  Sheeran sees no difference between serving the mob or the army.  He’s a soldier who follows through with orders from his superiors.

Toward the end of most gangster films, there’s either a massive shootout, a key betrayal leading to jail time or the main character dies in the blaze of glory.  Yet in The Irishman, Frank Sheeran becomes…old.  Frank Sheeran becomes feeble.  Frank Sheeran dies in a nursing home from natural causes, deserted and dissolute.  Scorsese’s theme of futility is punctuated thanks to de-aging technology utilized on all three principal actors, granting audiences the opportunity to experience these characters’ entire lives.  All they have built crumbles, with sand stretching in every direction.

Throughout the film, character’s names, birthdays, death days and descriptions of their death flash on the screen like flesh-colored tombstones.  The Irishman could be best summarized with Ecclesiastes 1:14-15:

“Everything under the sun is meaningless, like chasing the wind.  What is wrong cannot be righted.  What is missing cannot be recovered.”

Pablo Escobar was one of the most famous drug dealers/gangsters of our time.  For all his extravagance and wealth, it didn’t prevent him from burning $2 million while on the lam to keep his family warm.  With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese shows Christians how hollow lives built upon moral compromise deteriorate.  Frank Sheeran tells his life story from a nursing home: his life sand, stretching far away.


Editor’s Note: This article is an exploration into the themes of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. It is not an endorsement or recommendation for the film itself.

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