Features and Columns · Movies

The Ending of ‘The Irishman’ Explained

Martin Scorsese makes his final statement on the gangster characters of his youth.
The Irishman
By  · Published on November 27th, 2019

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. In this entry, we discuss the ending of The Irishman on Netflix

What’s the point of it all? Life. The drudgery of it. We scrounge every waking minute, collecting scraps for our tables, so those that we love can be fed and remain healthy. The minute we’re born, we’re marching toward oblivion. You have to make do with the days you have, and you better appreciate the day you’re in because it could very well be your last.

The Irishman feels like a thought that Martin Scorsese began in Goodfellas, carried over into Casino, and withheld until the final frame seen here. The director idolized these gangsters when he was a kid. Wearing the faces of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, they were the gods of the silver screen, living life to its fullest even if said life ended in a hail of gunfire. From his fire escape, little asthma-stricken Marty would look down at the streets below and see the hoods holding court over his neighborhood.

These men were kings, but their castles were built on bones, and they ruled through terror, violent reputation, and intimidation. The gangster is a candle that burns bright, attracting lots of eyes, but it’s also one easily snuffed out by another. How Scorsese ultimately feels about their attractive power is summed up in total in the last shot of The Irishman.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) outlasted everyone. He evaded capture and conviction from the police. He avoided a bullet to the head from his associates. After three and a half hours of watching countless others fail to reach an elderly station, the image of Sheeran slumped in a wheelchair stuck inside a cubicle of his retirement home seems like some kind of victory for the viewer. Until Scorese holds his camera.

We see Sheeran in his room, mimicking Psalm 118 to his priest. He doesn’t know the words. He only knows that the words contain power. As his pal, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), expressed to him as he neared his end, it’s better to get right with the lord before the options of Heaven and Hell present themselves. Just in case. Fingers crossed.

From the first men he killed in the war to the skull of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) he obliterated, Sheeran never experienced an ounce of remorse. No regret. That’s life. Some folks are luckier than others. Too bad, so sad, not really.

However, his miracle of a long life granted him too much time to exist within his head. He’s not a deer trapped in headlights; he’s absolutely frozen inside the beam. Unlike a lot of his gangster friends, he’s seen the end coming for an eternity. The dread has built in his system. It’s all he knows. He’s got to get right with God now. He’s got to get the priest’s words perfect.

“O give thanks unto the LORD; for His is good: for His mercy endureth for ever.”

Psalm 118 is a Thanksgiving blessing. In its reading, you center on God and express gratitude, admiration, praise, and joy for the creator. In genuflection, you give yourself to His will. The passage is not something you read to express sorrow. You did what you did. The passage is there to acknowledge the brilliance of Him. Sheeran is simply kissing the ring of the made man.

When the priest tells him that he’ll be back to visit after the Christmas holiday, Sheeran asks meekly, “It’s Christmas?” The priest responds, “Almost.” Sheeran shrugs, “Well, I ain’t going nowhere.” And he’s not. His daughters have abandoned him. His friends are dead. The man who forced many to the ultimate solitude is utterly alone. He may as well be dead.

Sheeran asks the priest to leave the door open a crack. Through that little sliver, he holds his hope to the outside world. Beyond his door, he knows his children thrive without him. They may hate them, but they are fed, and they will remain healthy. All he has now in these final moments is the belief that his actions had some benefit on them. Is that enough?

Goodfellas left its hero in a state of perceived hell. Henry Hill was damned to witness protection with Ragù on his spaghetti. Casino dropped Sam Rothstein in a San Diego retirement purgatory. The Irishman takes Sheeran to the doorstep of oblivion. Heaven and Hell are on the other side. He knows it.

In his pathetic mimicry of Psalm 118, Sheeran finally acknowledges God, and in doing so, he experiences regret for the sins of his life. His lifestyle makes for one helluva movie and sparks a searing curiosity, but not one of us would trade it for that desert of a bedroom in that dark, dank, dreary old folks home where no one but a priest or a nurse will ever walk through it again. He’s not cool. He’s not special. He’s an old man dying absent of love.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)