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Nothingness in "The Irishman"

The Irishman is about nothing.

This is not to be taken in the classic Seinfeld-ian connotation of the phrase. The Irishman is certainly about many weighty themes and ideas. It’s about the United States government and the US electorate and capitalism and the means of production and familial relationships and fraternity and loyalty and aging and mortality. It’s even about the proper way to store and transport fish and poultry. It’s about men and their lives and what those lives are, if they are not careful, filled up with: nothing.

Articles have been written about how in the film Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) barely speaks (7 lines of dialogue to be exact), but it’s Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the titular Irishman that narrates the movie, who says even less. Frank doesn’t talk about his feelings or his motivations or even his convictions. He’s a man of the era, the strong stoic type, and this proves to be his undoing in his relationship with his daughter Peggy and his friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Jimmy does all the real talking in the film. At least he does the kind of talking that reveals things about himself. He’s punctilious, he’s anal about time, he’s motivated by spite and small slights, he’s a taskmaster, an obsessive hard-worker who needs everything done just so. When he gets going with any momentum he’s absolutely unable to filter himself; he has the exact opposite of Frank’s flaw and this flaw turns out to be the deadlier of the two.

Peggy’s lack of dialogue foists upon her the role of audience stand-in, the viewer within the film. If the actual audience is to trust her as some sort of moral compass then Jimmy is certainly a victim, a good man given over to the wolves, like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), with whom her father associated.

Peggy might view Hoffa as a gentler soul than Russell but Martin Scorsese paints a different picture. Hoffa is obsessive, arrogant and unable to get out of his own way. He also willingly conducts business with the mob and their hitmen as evidenced by the first words he utters to Frank Sheeran.

No, Hoffa is no angel and his life was, in the end, as empty as Frank’s. Hoffa lost his life, and in doing so his family, because he was unwilling to compromise. And what was the reward he was chasing? Power? Money? Influence? All nothing on the cosmic scale of things especially considering that he already had some of each of those things. He could have retired happy and healthy had he been able to let well enough alone.

Frank says he lost Peggy the day he lost Jimmy, but in truth she and his family were gone years before while Frank was out making his way in the criminal underworld. His pursuit is less transparent than Jimmy’s because he isn’t singularly motivated. At one point in the film he mentions that having more kids means he needs more money, but it is an offhand remark. The power that he gains is handed to him by Hoffa without him having to advocate for it. What little influence he possesses he uses to protect Jimmy. It seems that none of those things were what drove him.

If anything, Frank’s motivation makes more sense as a lack of motivation or a lack of some essential humanity. He explains to Russell earlier in the film that while in the war he developed the ability to handle taking another man’s life. It’s this fact that compels him; not that it should be done or has to be done, but rather that it could be done and he is someone that could do it because whatever prevents someone from this particular evil is no longer within him. He is a man pushed forward by lacking.

As the movie unfolds all of Frank’s friends die. He is estranged from his family. Even the people who are paid to take care of him only give him the cursory time of day. At the end of his life, Frank is alone on Christmas with nothing and no one to keep him company. The moment and his existence are so bleak and meaningless that Frank hadn’t even remembered that it was Christmas until he was reminded by his priest. The nothingness of his life is so complete that time has stretched to a single inelastic unit without demarcation.

Towards the end of the film Frank is near a movie theater which is playing “The Shootist”, which was John Wayne’s last film. Scorsese chose The Duke’s swan song over any others. Perhaps he is ruminating about his time left as a fellow icon of American (and world) cinema. Both men spent a life creating art, creating fiction, creating something from nothing. The musician hears a song in a gust of wind, a painter sees pictures on the back of their eyelids. They are storytellers that make existence a bit more bearable. Without their contributions the day to day may indeed feel empty.

But not everyone can be an artist. Some men are like Frank and Russell and Jimmy. Or they’re like thousands of other people out there living their lives and trying to do so with meaning. None of us are immune to that nothingness that threatens to upturn the fragile realities we’ve built for ourselves. If The Irishman is about something rather than nothing, then it’s about choosing wisely the materials with which we build our realities. In the end we’re left with how we treat each other.

Accordingly, Frank meets his end with everyone dead or as far away from him as possible. It is precisely what his life’s work instructed others to do. He reaped what he sowed. He must know this, but it’s a horrible fact, a truth he would rather not face. He would like to believe that he did the best he could by people and he wants to hold out hope that there will be latter-day forgiveness and recognition for the not-so-terribly bad man that he is. He asks for the door to be left ajar inviting someone, anyone to disprove this fundamental truth about him. Faced with the nothing he had accumulated over his eight decades a vicious pragmatist of a man develops optimism. It won’t save him. Nothing can.