“She’s afraid of me,” Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) says to his friend and enforcer Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) of the latter’s eight-year-old daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult). After Frank demurs, citing Peggy’s shyness, Russ tells him to call her over. Bufalino asks the girl if she needs anything, if she wants candy, if there’s anything he can do for her. Her discomfort is clear. Years later, at a union function honoring Frank, the adult Peggy stares across the room at Russ, stricken with some emotion she never voices aloud. Not long after, in the wake of Frank’s murder of her “uncle” Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), Peggy severs ties with her father.
That Peggy idolized Hoffa and knew her father to be capable of brutal violence is undoubtedly true, but in that handful of silent scenes between Bufalino and Peggy, in her sister Dolores’s (Marin Ireland) tearful admission that Frank’s nominally protective violence served only to make his daughters too frightened of him to seek his help, something darker lurks unspoken. What did Russ do to Peggy that lingered even into her adulthood? What hurt couldn’t she or her sisters come to their father for help with? That ugly secret is coiled tight around The Irishman’s heart. Did Frank’s daughters’ fear of their father give Russ the freedom he needed to prey on at least one of them?
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You See How Strong I Made You?
The Irishman plunges further into the dark water of mob violence and corruption than any of Scorsese’s prior epics. Beyond Ace Rothstein’s cluelessly embittered monologue about his disappointment at ending up back as a bookie after his tenure as a Las Vegas kingpin in Casino or Henry Hill’s curdled, paranoid American Dream in Goodfellas is Frank Sheeran rotting alone in a nursing home, crippled by arthritis and rejected by his family, giving a confession he doesn’t care about to a priest he doesn’t know. He feels nothing for his many victims, or for their families, and has no idea of the terror in which his family lived or the private suffering they endured in his shadow. His life amounts to nothing more than a handful of murderers enriching themselves for a brief moment in time before being swallowed up by old age, disease, and violence.
“You see how strong I made you?” Russ tells Frank during a private moment at the union dinner. There are tears in the aging, childless mobster’s eyes. “You’re my kid. Nobody can fuck with you.” Is that hunger for legacy what drew Russ to Frank’s daughters? Is the hollow incompleteness of these vicious, thoughtless people with their stunted emotions what binds them into one another’s orbit?
The Irishman has no easy answers. It grants no catharsis. In the end there’s only an old man sitting in a nursing home room, too frightened of himself even to close his door, too bound up in bonds of blood and soured affection that he never truly understood to admit his crimes even when every participant save him is long since dead. This is Scorsese’s gangland masterpiece, a horror story about venal, stupid men building castles out of blood and sand to avoid the unbearable pain of knowing themselves.