7 words in a 3.5 hour movie: analyzing the layers in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

Credit: Netflix

Ever since Martin Scorsese’s epic gangster drama The Irishman (2019) was screened at the New York Film Festival, the reviews have been unanimously excellent, with Indiewire praising it as “Scorsese’s best work since Goodfellas.” But the film, which chronicles the life and times of Irish-American mob hit-man Frank Sheeran and reunites Robert De Niro and Al Pacino for a sprawling three-and-a-half-hours, has also sparked dismay at the scarcity of lines for its lead female actress, Anna Paquin. The Oscar-winning actress plays Peggy, Sheeran’s daughter in the film, and has but 7 lines and roughly 10 minutes of screen presence throughout the run time.

It has to be noted that unlike Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci who play both the younger and older versions of their respective characters through digitally de-aging techniques, Peggy Sheeran is played by two actresses. Although Anna Paquin packs layers beneath her unforgettable silent performance, she comes in later, and before her, the audience is first introduced to a young Peggy (played by the wonderful Lucy Gallina). When her mob hitman father Frank Sheeran returns home to find her sulking, only to discover that she had been physically pushed by the grocer at the store, he has a chance to display his concern. Outraged, Sheeran takes his daughter to the store and finds the man, drags him out and beats him mercilessly. Peggy watches the entire violence unfolding in front of her eyes, and says nothing.

Credit: Netflix

The impact of this stays with Peggy, who witnesses the ruthlessness her father can churn up, and this develops a vacuum between them, that increases as she grows up. Scorsese could have given her a subsequent scene, some might say, but it is the stoicism with which Peggy confronts her father throughout, which subsequently forms the still center of The Irishman. The film’s three leads have definitive character-arcs and there are plenty of scenes that play out as interactive discourses- of dealings, fights and encounters. Frank Sheeran narrates his life through a flashback, and although his actions form the backbone of Scorsese’s film, Scorsese repeatedly cuts to Peggy’s point of view, deftly revealing how each of Frank’s actions are being registered, even without a word. Peggy is the ghostly conscience of The Irishman that Scorsese holds on to, and reveals only at the latter half of the movie when Paquin takes up the role. Without a single dialogue, the direct jump in time establishes how Frank has missed his daughter’s entire childhood. The glance that Peggy gives his father at the very first scene after she is shown as a grown-up clearly says every nuance without a single dialogue- that she knows exactly what his father has done yet again.

Before Peggy actually says her lines in the aftermath of the disappearance of Hoffa (Al Pacino, in a career-peak performance), there is a tremendous scene where Scorsese uses her in stating how she already realizes Hoffa is in trouble. As she and Hoffa dance on the occasion of the banquet in Frank’s honor, she casually glances at Russell Buffalino (the great Joe Pesci in the film’s most revelatory performance) and sees him. Both of them never quite bonded, even from the time Peggy was a child, and there’s a reason- she knows what Buffalino is into, and is never fooled by his soft demeanor towards her. Although everyone is happily dancing along, Buffalino remains seated and quietly watches them. And later, when Frank does return after the disappearance, she is the only person in the family who dares to interrogate him. “Why?” she asks her father when he says he hasn’t called Hoffa’s wife Jo, and Frank can only counter it with “why what?” to which she finally asks- ” Why haven’t you called Jo?” Scorsese cuts this scene to the older Sheeran revealing that this day (August 3, 1975) was “the day (Peggy) stopped talking to me.”

Credit: Netflix

Peggy might have stopped talking to Frank that day, but she never leaves The Irishman. The final time they appear together, at Frank’s second wife’s funeral, she won’t even look at her father. The argument that Peggy should have been given more words indirectly subscribes to Frank’s point of view- it is he who wants his daughter to talk to him. And talking to his father would have given him exactly what he doesn’t deserve- a closure. The dissatisfaction of the audience and critics with Peggy’s silence is linked with Frank’s- because it is Frank who tells the story throughout- Peggy exists in the terms of his understanding of his daughter, who was the only one whose belonging he craved. That he couldn’t recall any other instance with his daughter but recalls all the dealings with Hoffa and Buffalino singularly conveys his position as a father. Peggy’s silence is the ultimate act of revenge- it is the ghost that torments Frank in those devastating moments of remorse and redemption.

Santanu Das

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