Some Mob bosses claim to know where all the bodies are buried. But Frank Sheeran put them there.
He euphemistically says that he’s a house painter. And, after a fashion, he is: He paints the walls red not with a brush, but with a bullet. Sure, maybe the coverage isn’t quite what an owner would want. But if Frank does his job well, the owner is probably in no position to care.
He wasn’t always a killer. For years he drove a truck, hauling sides of beef. He delivered meat instead of making it, and that was just fine.
But Frank never shied away from dirtier work. Back in World War II, his commanding officers sometimes had him run a couple of Nazi POWs out into the wood and “come back quickly.” They never told him what to do, but he knew. In those hard, war-torn days when bullets were plentiful and mercy scarce, the calculus made sense to Frank.
He didn’t love the killing. But he didn’t mind it, either. It was just a job, painting the European dirt. Good soldiers followed orders, and Frank was a good soldier.
Frank never even would’ve worked for the Mob had he not met a kindly little fellow at a gas station. Frank’s truck had broken down. The man suggested tightening the timing chain and, sure enough, the truck purred like a kitten again after that quick fix. Frank thanked him and went on his way.
But the man—Mafia don Russell Bufalino—didn’t forget Frank. When Frank got into a scrape over a bit of stolen beef, Russell’s brother Bill, a lawyer, defended him. And when Frank told Russell about his experiences in the war—his off-the-record “painting” duties—Russell figured he found a guy who’d fit right in with his extended family. After all, the Mob is always looking for good soldiers.
Frank’s lucrative second career was born. He didn’t need much direction—just a name and a wink. He’d do the job and get out, letting the cleanup crew follow. And he didn’t just paint: He was an all-around handyman, doing whatever needed to be done. Collect a debt? Rough up a welcher? Didn’t matter, Frank could, and would, do it. And as he worked, his reputation grew.
One night, Russell hands the phone to Frank and asks him to speak with Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters Union and one of the most powerful men in the United States.
“I heard you paint houses,” Hoffa says.
“I do my own carpentry, too,” Frank answers.
And with that, Frank starts working for the Teamsters as well—nothing too bloody, too extreme, but definitely off the books.
Yeah, Frank knows how to be a good soldier. He knows that if you follow orders, the rewards will come, and his whole life is proof.
But what happens when you work for two different bosses?
Frank knows where the bodies are buried. He put more than his share there. But as time goes on, he’ll have to be careful to make sure he doesn’t join them.
Few characters in The Irishman could be described, by any sort of fair measuring stick, as being a “good person.” After all, we’re talking about folks who are either members of the Mafia or neck deep in their doings. But still, each character adheres in some way to a code of morality, albeit one of his own making. And sometimes, these characters have cogent things to say.
Take Russell, for instance, a seemingly gentle crime boss. Sure, his business can get violent, and he’s certainly not above erasing folks who cross him. But he sees himself as a wise, generous patriarch—a true Godfather to those under his “care”—and he takes his role as a protector quite seriously.
Moreover, he’s all about family. He tells Frank that family is a “blessing” and cautions the Irishman to never take his own family (his second wife and his four daughters) for granted. Russell thinks of Frank’s family as an extension of his own, and he and Frank have almost a father-son relationship. He protects Frank throughout the movie, sometimes from fellow mobsters that might have reason to want him dead.
“You don’t know what a good friend you have,” one boss tells Frank sincerely. And when Frank acknowledges Russell’s friendship, the mobster tells him, “No. You don’t know.” The kingpin is suggesting that, if it hadn’t been for Russell, Frank might be dead—and probably by this mobster’s orders.
But as much as Russell loves family, Jimmy Hoffa loves family, and we see that primarily through the eyes of Peggy, one of Frank’s daughters. Peggy, more than anyone, sees the dark side of her father and is repulsed by the Mob. When Russell comes to visit, no matter how many gifts he showers on her, she’s scared of the guy—just like she is of her own dad. In contrast, Jimmy becomes something of a favorite uncle to Peggy: His enthusiasm for life and seemingly genuine good will win her over. The two remain close even as Peggy grows up.
As for Frank … well, he wants to be a good dad, and he tries to be both a strong provider and protector. His Mob ties technically bolster both roles, even as it drives wedges between him and his daughters (especially Peggy). And as Frank’s life wears on, we realize that his failures as a father are his biggest regret. At least we can say that much about him: Toward the end, he understood this area of deep failure.
Catholicism runs deep in the Mob (at least in Director Martin Scorsese’s version of the Mob). We see several baptisms at Catholic churches, along with a wedding or two. Christian statues and iconography have a persistent presence.
Near the end of his life, Russell begins going to church regularly. Frank almost openly scoffs at him at first, but Russell suggests that as you get older, your thoughts turn to the eternal. “Don’t laugh,” Russell says. “You’ll see.”
[Spoiler Warning] Indeed, Frank does. The film traces decades of Frank’s life, from the time he was a truck driver to when he’s an old man in a Catholic nursing home. At first, we see the attendant priest talk with others. But later, the priest takes Frank’s confession and prays with him repeatedly. When the priest asks Frank if he feels any remorse at all for his past deeds, Frank says he’s tried—that even confessing those sins was an effort to feel some remorse. But Frank admits that the people he killed were “water under a bridge.” “I think we can be sorry even when we don’t feel sorry,” the priest tells him, hopefully. “It’s a decision of the will.”
When Frank shops for his final resting place, he chooses an above-ground crypt, because it feels less “final” than being cremated or buried under ground. We hear people talk derogatorily about Jewish-run businesses. Russell tells Peggy a joke about why God made heaven so high.
We hear someone reference lesbians. Frank takes part in a complicated scheme that involves talking with “a fairy named Fairy.” (The man appears to have some makeup on his face.) Frank has an affair with a waitress. We see them walk toward a hotel, laughing and talking, shortly before we’re told that Frank left his first wife. (He then marries the waitress.) We hear about a casino offering the “first topless show” on the strip.
We see Frank “paint” repeatedly. Sometimes the kills are quick—just a gunshot or two—and the blood spatters across the walls. But in one, he shoots a man several times as the guy tries to flee, eventually pouring bullets into the victim’s head as he lies on the sidewalk. (We see a close-up of another victim’s face, two bullet holes grotesquely marring the man’s visage.)
In flashback, we watch as Frank commits a war crime: He forces two Nazis to dig their own grave, then shoots both several times in the chest. They slump into the hole, and Frank shoots them both again a few times, making sure the deed is done.
Frank’s not the only guy to kill here, though. One man is strangled in a car, for instance. The leader of an Italian-American advocacy group is brutally assassinated: Someone shoots him in the head, and blood spurts from the wound as police wrestle the assassin to the ground. And throughout the movie, Scorsese freezes the picture periodically, giving us captions of various gangsters and telling us how they met their demise: One was shot in the head six times, we’re told; another three. Another passed away from cancer, etc.
People have some nonlethal confrontations, too: Jimmy Hoffa fights repeatedly with a prime union adversary. Both kick and throw punches and wrestle each other to the ground. (Hoffa wears some cuts and bruises on his face from one such melee.) When a store owner pushes Peggy, Frank storms into the store, beats the owner, throws him through his own door (shattering the glass covering it) and stomps on the man’s bloody hand, presumably grinding a bunch of bones into mush.
A chicken’s neck is sliced open, sending blood flying. Cars and boats get blown up to send a message. (A bunch of taxis are dumped in the water for the same reason.) We see a charred body partially incinerated in a crematorium. We hear Walter Cronkite talk about the assassination of President John Kennedy, and we get news reports on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The movie suggests that the Mob had involvement in both events. One character threatens to rip the guts out of someone’s granddaughter.
About 130 f-words (including at least one preceded by “mother”) and more than 20 s-words. Jimmy Hoffa’s favorite expletive is “c–ks–ker, which he repeats many times. Also overheard: “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “h—,” “p-ss” and “pr–k.” God’s name is misused at least seven times, five with “d–n.” The characters sometimes slip into un-subtitled Italian, so there might be a few that this non-Italian-speaking movie reviewer missed as well.
Characters smoke a lot. Indeed, much of the narrative revolves around a road trip that Frank and Russell are making with their wives, and smoke breaks are a big topic of conversation.
Characters drink frequently too, and some seem to consume to excess. Lots of scenes take place in bars and nightclubs.
We are talking about the Mob here. Most everyone is involved in organized crime in one way or another, so the ethical slopes the story traipses across here are slippery indeed. People (including politicians) are bribed, jurors are tampered with. In addition, we hear a great deal about ethnicity, with some embracing unflattering and offensive ethnic stereotypes. Mob-owned (or financed) Vegas casinos become part of a subplot.
At first, director Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-based The Irishman feels a little like a particularly bloody version of Forrest Gump: Frank Sheeran, we’re told, was elbow deep in American history circa the 1960s and ’70s, and those arms were coated in crimson. From Kennedy’s assassination to Hoffa’s disappearance, he can tell you what went down.
But if the real Frank Sheeran was still alive (he died in 2003), he just might say that the nearly four-hour flick is close to a documentary.
Charles Brandt’s book, I Heard You Paint Houses, was the product of a series of deathbed confessions made by Sheeran—many of which have extensive outside corroboration. Scorsese took the book—the cover of which is, suggestively, red—and slapped much of it on screen, pushing a few of his favorite actors into the major parts. Oscar-winners Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci cemented themselves as acting legends under Scorsese’s direction; they, in turn, helped make Scorsese one of Hollywood’s most iconic directors. Pacino, another Oscar winner, had never worked with Scorsese before. He took the role of Jimmy Hoffa in part so he’d have the chance to do so.
The results could push The Irishman to awards-season glory, perhaps even nabbing a Best Picture Oscar that Netflix clearly covets. And like much of Scorsese’s work, The Irishman weaves deeper, sometimes even spiritual messages into the mix. The Irishman deals deeply with sin and confession, family and betrayal.
But while Scorsese’s moviemaking mastery is certainly on display, so are two of his more unfortunate calling cards: blood and bad language.
Some could make an argument that neither are out of place here, given the hard, violent world of organized crime that Scorsese depicts. Purported to chronicle the real mob life of a real-life mobster, all that crass content arguably adds to the realism.
But Plugged In can’t and won’t make that argument. This content doesn’t add much to the story, and it certainly makes it more difficult—and less advisable—to watch. And the fact that this harsh piece of cinema comes without so much as a ticket-checker to guard kids against extreme R-rated content is deeply troubling. Sure, Netflix does have parental controls, but few parents use them or, perhaps, even know how.
So thanks to the on-demand streaming megalith, The Irishman can charge into your home unchecked¬—like a heat-packing hitman rushing into a New York restaurant.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.