As previously established, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a heck of a sit. To get to its ending, which echoes other classic mafia stories while adding a few extra pounds to its narrative weight, a person has to remain in front of a screen for more than three hours. Ironically, all of that sitting ultimately leads to the sight of Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran sitting, now in a wheelchair, alone and living in a nursing home where the caretakers don’t even know who Jimmy Hoffa, his famous former friend and boss, is. The conclusion of The Irishman does something that the most quintessential filmed mafia stories — The Godfather, Scorsese’s GoodFellas, even The Sopranos — rarely do: It renders its antihero small and irrelevant.
In the very last moments of The Irishman, a door is left open at Frank’s request. It is the door to his room in the nursing home, where he’s just been praying with his priest. The priest tells him he may not see Frank again until after the Christmas holidays. “It’s Christmas?” Frank asks. It’s a question that implies that Frank is old enough now to not have a firm grasp of what’s happening in the world around him. It’s also yet another exhibit in the body of evidence that tells us that world is moving on without him.
That body of evidence is presented in the scenes that immediately precede this one and explain what has happened to Frank since he served time in prison for some of his crimes, but not his most serious one: the murder of Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank’s wife has died. So have his attorney and all the former colleagues who have some knowledge about what happened to Hoffa.
Even those who are not dead have basically forgotten about Frank. His daughters rarely visit, and his most beloved child, Peggy, played as an adult by Anna Paquin, refuses to have anything to do with him. Frank is all alone now and still toggling between owning up to his guilt and acting like that guilt doesn’t exist. When his priest asks if he feels any remorse for the families whose lives were ruined because of the murders Frank committed he says, “I didn’t know the families.” But seconds later, he asks rhetorically, “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” The priest doesn’t know what Frank is referring to, but we do: He’s recalling the conversation in which he lied to Hoffa’s distraught wife, Jo, telling her that he had no idea what happened to her husband and that he’s sure everything will be fine. He knows it won’t. Jimmy is dead and Frank is responsible. If he fully gives in to the reality behind that lie and of what he did, he won’t be able to live with himself. Denial has become Frank’s life preserver.
This is also why, in one breath, Frank can say, “Sooner or later everybody put here has a date when he’s gonna go,” and then in another, regarding his decision to be laid to rest in a mausoleum, say, “You’re dead, but it ain’t that final.” He believes in keeping the door open.
In the final moments of the film, Frank quite literally does that. As the priest leaves Frank’s room, Frank says, “Don’t shut the door all the way. I don’t like that.” Maybe he does this for practical reasons: because he still thinks Peggy might walk through that door, or because he’s still trained to keep a lookout for any threat. Either way, that comment serves a more symbolic purpose. The last projected image we see of Frank is a view of him through a door ajar, not fully open nor fully closed, a literal manifestation of Frank’s indecisiveness. Through that space, Frank looks small, distant, all by himself. He’s a man left behind.
Now think back on those other criminal epics I mentioned before. The Godfather ends with a door closing completely, leaving Kay (Diane Keaton) shut out of the room where her husband, Al Pacino’s Michael, who has just lied to her about his involvement in the death of his own brother-in-law, is being regaled as the new Don. The closed door signifies that there is ongoing business that Kay will not be a part of, and that Michael has been rewarded for doing the dirty work he inherited from his father.
GoodFellas also ends with the shutting of a door, specifically the front door of Henry Hill’s suburban home, where he now resides as a member of the Witness Protection Program, stripped of his real identity. “I’m an average nobody,” Henry (Ray Liotta) says to camera just before slamming that door in the audience’s face to the tune of a Sid Vicious cover of “My Way.” “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Despite those words, there’s a spirit of defiance in that ending. This conclusion, and the conclusion of The Godfather, tell us that the protagonists in those stories did terrible things and got away with it. They haven’t been sent to prison; Henry may feel like he’s in a prison of sorts, but he’s still a young man, living in a very nice house. He’s still alive. And Michael, at least in part one of The Godfather, still gets to continue his unseemly enterprise.
The Sopranos does not end with the closing of a door, but its famous “cut to black” is the less literal equivalent of a door slammed. As has been discussed ad nauseam for the past decade-plus, that resolution is both abrupt and vague. We don’t know if Tony Soprano lives or if Tony Soprano is killed on that night at a diner with his family. Is he held accountable for all the bad things he’s done over multiple seasons? We don’t know. If he’s not killed, will he reach the end of his life and feel guilt or not? We don’t know. It’s reminiscent of the endings of the previous two quintessential mafia movies, but with more ambiguity. And since we never see whether he was killed or not, we also never get to see Tony receive his comeuppance onscreen.
The final moments of The Irishman do not depict the closing of a door and they don’t cut to black. They leave the door partway open, so we can see what becomes of a man who engages in a life of crime for decades. Unlike Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Frank is not surrounded by acolytes showering him with praise. Unlike Henry Hill, he’s not able to retreat into his lovely suburban home with his morning paper. Unlike Tony Soprano, Frank doesn’t get to enjoy a hot meal with his family while listening to Journey.
Frank has no one and nothing. For that reason, in the context of the works I’ve mentioned, he is the only one of these difficult mafia men who pays some consequences for what he’s done. He never gets convicted for killing Jimmy Hoffa, but his loneliness and irrelevance are a form of punishment, maybe even a worse one. Frank doesn’t have to serve additional prison time, but he also doesn’t earn the notoriety of being known as the guy who offed Hoffa. He’s a schnook, but one without a nice home and more years to live. He’s a schnook in a nursing home who’s on the precipice of death.
It’s easy to view The Irishman as a traditional male-dominated story. But the way Scorsese and Steven Zaillian end it suggests that, unlike those other films and shows, men like Frank Sheeran don’t matter anymore. The whole movie can be read as an obituary for guys like him.
There’s another ending The Irishman more closely echoes, it’s the one that puts a cap on what is, arguably, the greatest mafia film ever made: The Godfather Part II. There we see Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, sitting alone and in deep thought, presumably grappling with the choices he’s made, particularly to have his brother Fredo killed. There is a poignancy in reflecting on this scene while watching The Irishman, since it’s the memories related to Pacino’s Hoffa that hang so heavily over Frank, who is played by De Niro, the same actor who portrayed the young Vito Corleone, father of Michael, in the second Godfather. When considered in that context, The Irishman feels like an obituary for a whole era of films.
It is that last moment, that simple choice to leave a door ajar, that makes us feel the entire weight of what The Irishman is: a portrait of a flawed man at the end of his life with no sense of closure or companionship, and a film that feels like a significant chapter of cinematic history coming full circle.