The canvas is very large, but the story is actually quite small. It’s about three men navigating the American culture of the 50s and 60s as they slowly fall onto opposites sides of an impossible divide. It’s about a man who chose wrong and ends up alone. It’s also expertly and energetically told by one of the great filmmakers using advanced tools as effectively as possible.
From the outset, it’s clear that this story is filtered through one old man’s memory. Frank Sheeran, in his 80s and living in a retirement community, speaks to us of his story that began in the 40s when he was a member of the Teamsters Union, driving a truck full of meat around Philadelphia. He figures out little ways to make those around him happy at the expense of those actually supplying the meat until he shows up at his destination with an empty truck. His loyalty to his friends catches the eye of Russell Buffalino, a mob boss who takes a shining to the Irishman, especially when he displays a propensity for the Italian language picked up while serving under General Patton. Through Russell, Frank meets Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters Union. Younger than both, Frank looks at Russell and Jimmy as surrogate father figures who provide him with opportunities for advancement in life including the presidency of a local chapter of the Teamsters Union.
However, nothing can always been happy in this world, and Russell and Jimmy end up in opposition around the direction of the Union after Jimmy gets thrown into prison on fraud charges. When Jimmy gets out, he hates how his chosen successor has become a doormat to mob interests, using the pension fund as an source of interest free loans to mobsters across the country. Jimmy wants to return the Union to its more idealistic and legal roots, but Russell has been one of those who has received greatly from the new order. Jimmy threatens everything, and Russell can’t tolerate that.
However, the great thing about this large section of the film (it’s the middle two hours) is that the animosity that grows isn’t explosive or angry, but quiet and almost sad. Russell likes Jimmy, and the idea that it falls on him to arrange and onto Frank to execute the assassination of Jimmy Hoffa brings him no joy. Frank becomes a tool, caught between his two mentors and unable to say no to either of them, so he follows through on Russell’s orders, meets Jimmy in Detroit and shoots him in an empty house.
This two hour section almost feels like someone else’s movie, like Frank is a side-character in the film named after him, but it’s the final forty-five minutes that really drives home whose story this is. It is 100% Frank’s.
Throughout the film, Scorsese will introduce certain minor characters with a freeze frame and a quick bit of text that describes how they’ll die horrifically several decades later (such as, “Shot six times in the back of the head in his own kitchen”). This prevents the audience from staying purely in the moment portrayed, always reminding us of the inevitable and tragic end that’s surely to come, and considering that it’s all told from Frank’s unreliable narrator of a character decades after the rest of the characters have died, it provides a certain melancholic air that never really leaves the film. That melancholy really extends from Frank’s own sense of isolation, which we get in great detail at the end of the film.
Frank had four daughters, and the film has used one, Peggy, as a nearly silent observer of Frank’s behavior. Peggy has relationships with both Russell and Jimmy as well. With Russell, she’s cold and distant, only ever giving small one note responses to his efforts to win her affections. Jimmy, on the other hand, has a very easy rapport with her and buys her ice cream which she accepts gleefully. Peggy, much like Frank, is somehow caught between the two men, but she sees the two men far more clearly than Frank does. Peggy can sense the violence within Russell that Frank either can’t see or excuses away, and she also sees Jimmy’s innate goodness. Frank loves them both, but Peggy easily decides between them. She not only sees the difference in character between the two men, but Peggy also represents Frank’s isolation from his own family. He doesn’t take into account what his family would think when he chooses to follow Russell’s order to kill Jimmy, and that act severs what little connection he had with his family up to that point.
A good bit has been made of the great final shot of the film showing Frank alone in his room at the retirement home, only those paid to see him as errant company, but there’s another shot a bit earlier that I think encapsulates the finality of Frank’s isolation even better. Nearly crippled, hobbled on a pair of canes, Frank goes to the bank where Peggy works as a teller and tries to force a conversation with her. We only see her very briefly in a panning shot after Frank gets to the front of the line and Peggy very quickly sets up a sign saying that her position is empty and she walks right out of frame. It’s very quick, maybe half a second long, but the swiftness of Peggy’s disappearance is what gives the moment its power. Not only does Frank barely get a look at her, but we can barely see her either.
The movie’s huge and intimate all at once. The special effects to de-age our three main actors are largely very good. It leaves with such a complete sense of solemn loss and isolation that gets built up to exceedingly well over the course of its three and a half hours. I loved this film. It’s not one of Scorsese’s best, but with a filmography like his, it’s hard to get into that very top tier reserved for The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4