Sitting down to watch The Irishman is not something one does on a whim – the film is three and a half hours long. But once you decide to watch it, you'll undoubtedly be glad you did.
The film has been getting rave reviews, in no small part for the expansive story that it tells, full of colourful (to say the least) characters. Its a lot of names, and a lot of similar-looking faces so we're here to help explain what went on in The Irishman.
Warning: there are huge spoilers for The Irishman ahead.
The main character in this film is Frank Sheeran, the eponymous Irishman who paints houses and is played by Robert De Niro. He narrates the film, and it is his lens through which we see the history unfold.
We begin with Frank in a nursing home, telling a story to an as-yet unspecified listener – but really the listener is us, the Netflix audience. He sets the stage like a one-man Greek chorus, perhaps unwittingly foreshadowing the decisions that would eventually unravel Frank's relationships with his family.
At first Frank is just a delivery man. He drives trucks full of meat which he begins selling to local gangsters, which puts him on the wrong side of the company for whom he works. Accused of theft, he turns to lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), the cousin of gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
We then jump into a road trip to the wedding of Bill Bufalino's daughter in Russell's car. The passengers are Russell and Frank and their wives. The car trip, like the nursing home, becomes a frequent return point for the narrator Frank.
Back in the linear story, Frank and Russell grow closer but the rift between him and his kids continues to grow. Frank continues to do odd jobs for the Mafia, killing people who need killing (yes, just like that). His good work eventually catches the attention of Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters (ie the truck-drivers' union).
Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, injects a vibrant contrast to the otherwise dour Mafia men. Hoffa knows how to have fun. It's this energy that, perhaps, endears him to Frank's daughter Peggy. Everyone is in awe of Hoffa, but every sun sets.
And with it rises something else. Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham) begins to threaten Hoffa's security as the leader of the Teamsters. Where Hoffa was discreet, though violent, Tony Pro seemingly has no bounds.
Hoffa encourages Frank to run for president of a local chapter of the Teamsters. "I'm not giving you anything you didn't deserve," Hoffa tells Frank. It is this kind of manipulative gift-giving that continues to win Frank's loyalty to Hoffa and the Bufalino crime family.
Frank draws closer to Hoffa, but as you watch their relationship strengthen it's impossible not to also see the web of connections straining between everyone else. These men are all ready and willing to betray each other to get what they want – whatever that is. So much is done in the shadows that Frank's naivety is both wilful and almost endearing.
There is a brief interlude about the election of President John F Kennedy, who inspired vitriol in Hoffa but was beloved by "The Italians" as Frank explains, including Russell Bufalino. What irks Frank is Kennedy's brother Robert, the Attorney General, who has it out for Hoffa because, as head of the Teamsters, Hoffa had control over vast sums of money which he reportedly laundered and embezzled.
Perhaps one of the most illustrative moments is when Frank the narrator asks us if it makes sense. If Robert Kennedy going after the very people (the Italian mob) who got his brother elected president makes any sense? Of course, it doesn't, but it does. This is the push-pull that tethers the whole film.
After President Kennedy is assassinated, Robert Kennedy succeeds in getting his man. Hoffa is arrested in 1964 for jury tampering and while in prison his replacement Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) begins overspending and making loans to the mob.
Hoffa doesn't like Fitz, but the rest of the Teamsters do. Tensions skyrocket as Hoffa tries to assert his power from prison, but meanwhile his arch enemy "Tony Pro" Provenzano is also arrested and winds up in the same prison as Hoffa.
This does not go down well between them. A relationship already held together solely by duct tape and spit completely comes apart.
Hoffa is released from prison by Nixon in a Presidential pardon but is forbidden from taking part in any Teamsters activities. But this is Hoffa – a man bigger than The Beatles and Elvis. Who is he going to listen to?
Hoffa's competitor in the upcoming election is Fitz, who is being backed by Tony Pro – this spells trouble for Hoffa, of course.
Hoffa's ego begins to ruffle Russell's feathers, as well as the higher-ups in various mob families tied in with the Teamsters. Russell tries to tell Hoffa to show appreciation for the support he's had, but Hoffa sees it as a threat which he will not abide.
Russell asks Frank to try and talk sense into their 'friend' Hoffa. But Hoffa reacts by telling Frank that he "knows things" that the other Teamster higher-ups are unaware he knows, and that if he goes down they'll all go down.
The Mafia, however, don't see it that way.
We are brought back to the road trip. On a phone call, Hoffa reveals to Frank that he's going to meet Tony Pro and Mafia boss Tony Giacalone, which makes Frank more than a little concerned. Which he should be.
Russell tells him, without ever telling him, that Hoffa is out and the Mafia has sanctioned his death. So Frank gets on a plane to Detroit and arrives at the diner where Hoffa is waiting for his meeting. They tell him it's been moved and bring him to a house.
When they arrive, Hoffa realises he's been set up. He tries to warn Frank that they should leave, but Frank shoots him twice at point-blank range.
Over time, Frank, Russell, Tony Pro and many other teamsters-cum-mobsters are arrested for their crimes, but never for Hoffa's murder (in fact, it remains unsolved today despite the story the film portrays).
We then come back to 'present day' as Frank tries to reconnect with his daughter Peggy, who seemingly loved Hoffa more than her father (can you blame her?), but she rejects him.
We return to Frank at the end of his life, praying with a young priest. Frank is now looking back on the legacy he left behind: daughters who won't let him know them, with a nurse who doesn't know who he – more importantly, who Jimmy Hoffa – is.
The priest departs, but Frank asks him to leave the door open. The movie ends with this final shot of Frank, staring at the open, vacant doorway.
What does The Irishman's final shot mean?
This final shot is something film critics will likely mull over for years: Scorsese's legacy, Frank's legacy. One of the many things The Irishman seems to say is that loyalty is only valuable when it comes with love and appreciation, not just power.
It's all a gamble and Frank gambled on Hoffa, Russell, and the Teamsters. Though it made him part of history, it removed him from his family. And who else will remember you when you're no longer useful as a 'house painter' or anything else, for that matter? Those you loved. If you were so lucky – and so clever to remember that fact.
But it also raises the question of salvation. Is the life that Frank now leads just an extended purgatory until whatever comes next? If so, that door left ajar could be the door of salvation of his soul also being left open ever so slightly. What does Frank really feel about betraying Jimmy? About the decisions he's made? He never really tells us. Perhaps he doesn't know himself.
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix.
Digital Spy now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox.
You Might Also Like