Mob Rules

Josh Larsen

Frank Sheeran has just killed a man.

It’s about three quarters of the way through The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese’s sixth film set amidst the world of organized crime, and Frank (Robert De Niro) has returned from carrying out yet another mob hit—one of many, many murders he’s committed over the years. Frank gets into a waiting car, sliding next to the crime boss who gave him the order. After a grunt of confirmation the two sit in silence. Nothing else is spoken, but you can almost hear the devil stealing and perverting those lines from Jesus’ parable: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

If you want a sense of Martin Scorsese as a religious filmmaker, don’t go to The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, that controversial film—as well as Scorsese’s Kundun and Silence—explicitly explores matters of spirituality. Yet for a more cohesive and personal experience of Scorsese’s cinema as sacred text, watch the director’s mob movies. From 1973’s Mean Streets to The Irishman, his gangster films are deeply, inescapably religious: governed by rituals (the careful slicing of garlic) and laws (guys you can hit and guys you can’t), while humming to the hymnody of Motown and rock and roll.

On the surface, Scorsese’s mob movies are steeped in Catholic practice. But it’s not just the baptisms and the signs of the cross that connect his movies to the Church. Ceremony is inextricably part of the secular aspects of the criminal life, from the solemn rite of passage that is becoming a “made man” to the constant scenes of communal meal-making (even in prison, mobsters find ways to prepare and enjoy a multi-course dinner, wine included). And then there are those moments that mix gangster routine with religious ritual. Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s 2002 historical drama about rival factions in 1860s New York City, opens with a massive Irish clan preparing for a rumble by sharpening their knives and praying to St. Michael the Archangel. Blessed are the vicious.

These men may mimic the Church, but they also clearly consider themselves above it—and above the law. The criminals we meet in Scorsese’s mob movies—from De Niro’s Frank Sheeran in The Irishman to Ray Liotta’s wiseguy-turned-informant, Henry Hill, in 1990’s Goodfellas to Jack Nicholson’s Boston crime boss, Frank Costello, in 2006’s The Departed—consider themselves to be all-powerful gods who exist in worlds of their own making. As Costello says in voiceover during The Departed’s opening scene, where Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus depict him—and him alone—in complete shadow: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” These men set their own rules, unlike the “schnooks” (to borrow Henry Hill’s term from Goodfellas) who pay their taxes and obey the speed limit. And yet, they are beholden to a code that is even more unforgiving than the legal system. In a world absent of benevolence, they eventually find themselves subject to greater suffering than the schnooks.

For a cohesive and personal experience of Scorsese’s cinema as sacred text, watch the director’s mob movies.

From the very start, Scorsese’ s mob movies featured characters who thought they had created their own heaven, but were unwittingly trapped in hell. I haven’t run the numbers, but my guess is a good 30 percent of these films take place in mob-connected bars. These are ostensibly “safe” places, free from the cops, flowing with sex and booze. Yet notice how they’re often lit: in simmering, hellish red. And these locations are where some of the most brutal violence ensues. In Mean Streets, when Harvey Keitel’s low-level debt collector, Charlie, meets his close friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) at their favorite bar, Johnny Boy enters the glowing lair via a slow-motion reverse tracking shot, two women on his arms and The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on the soundtrack. It’s a thrilling moment—an early example of Scorsese’s virtuosity combining music and camera movement—but it’s later juxtaposed with another scene in the same bar, where the erratic Johnny Boy pulls a gun on a loan shark, crossing an unspoken line and sealing his fate.

Casino, Scorsese’s 1995 epic detailing organized crime’s grip on 1970s Las Vegas, opens up the color palette, from the iridescent, neon-drenched credit sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass to the garish outfits worn by Robert De Niro’s “Ace” Rothstein, the mob-appointed manager of the Tangiers casino. Ace, in another voiceover, describes Las Vegas as “paradise on earth” and a “morality car wash,” where what is illicit elsewhere is legal (and easily grifted). Yet in the deep shadows just outside Vegas’ colored lights lies death. Ace can pretend he’s running a legit, glamorous operation, but he knows he’s ultimately operating under the mob’s strict rules and regulations, and that failing to follow them would be costly. As he says, “I knew about the holes in the desert, of course.”

Wait a minute: constricting rules; demanding regulations. Aren’t those things often associated with the Church? In The Departed, Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello scoffs, “Church puts you in your place. Kneel, stand. Kneel, stand.” But Scorsese’s mob movies reveal that a life in organized crime comes with even more severe stipulations. In The Departed, it’s Costello’s henchman (Ray Winstone) who tells Billy, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aspiring gangster, that “there are guys you can hit, and there are guys you can’t.” (This after Billy knocks out a loudmouth in, where else, a bar.) Costello himself makes it plain who it is Billy must unquestionably obey when he tells him: “Come with me. I’m not the cops, I’m not askin’ ya.” If you want to belong to this club, you better blindly follow, no questions asked, no matter the cost.

To be a gangster in a Scorsese mob film, then, is to be constantly uneasy, fearful, paranoid. Except for rare moments of celebration—one of those baptisms, say, or a heist gone right—these characters live in terror of insulting the wrong person, attracting the attention of the police, being on the surprise end of a hit. Goodfellas builds to a drug-fueled climax, in which a neurotic Henry Hill imagines a helicopter is tailing his car all day while he’s been dropping off guns, picking up product, and popping in back home to prep the ziti with meat gravy that the family plans to have for dinner that night. In his mind, his entire existence has come under surveillance, right down to the sauce.

Surveillance—the idea that someone is always watching, just waiting for you to mess up—underscores one of the flashier sequences in Casino. When Ace tells us, “In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else,” the camera proceeds to show us what he means, swerving from the dealers who watch the players to the boxmen who watch the dealers to the floormen who watch the boxmen to the pit bosses who watch the floormen to the shift bosses who watch the pit bosses and so on until we cut to a security camera in the ceiling: the “eye in the sky ... watching us all.” If this is paradise, why are there so many judgmental eyes?

To be a gangster in a Scorsese mob film is to be constantly uneasy, fearful, paranoid.

All of Scorsese’s mob movies, including Casino, depict a world where sinners have freed themselves from the law, only to shackle themselves in chains of their own making. Scoffing at the Ten Commandments (except maybe “honor your father and your mother”), they’ve nevertheless doubled down on the law’s demands. And they’ve forgotten the love with which those commandments were given, the same love through which Christ would redeem those under the law, offering freedom to all who accept it.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Great demands are made of the mobsters in Scorsese’s films, but they’re made out of pride and greed, not love. And when they’re not obeyed, well, more likely than not, a hole in the desert has already been dug. Christianity, conversely, insists on an empty grave. Christ died in our place, paying the price for our inability to meet God’s righteous demands, “once for all.” And then Christ rose as evidence that even death—the ultimate penalty—had lost its grip. This sort of amazing grace and unrivaled freedom is absent in Scorsese’s mob movies. Graves are plentiful in these films, as are bodies to fill them.

If there’s a defining scene, theologically speaking, in Scorsese’s mob-movie canon, it’s a Christmas party being held in a bar in Goodfellas. Henry is celebrating a successful robbery with Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the others in the crew who pulled it off. Jimmy previously told everyone to sit on the money they’d stolen, to not make any lavish purchases for fear of attracting too much attention. Then one of them pulls up with his wife in the new pink coupe that he bought for her. “What’s the matter with you?!” Jimmy explodes. “What’re you, stupid!?” Ashamed, the man walks away, presumably to return the car. Just as Jimmy begins to calm down, another accomplice enters the bar with his wife, who’s sporting a full-length fur coat. Jimmy yanks it off her, yells “Get it out of here!” and kicks them out of the party. With Jimmy making the rules, this is no place for a Christmas gift—let alone the gift of Christmas.

Scorsese's mobsters have freed themselves from the law, only to shackle themselves in chains of their own making.

After telling us that Christ died “once for all,” the author of Hebrews testifies that in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, God makes this promise: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” Could this possibly apply to the likes of Johnny Boy, Henry Hill, and Frank Costello? What about Frank Sheeran?

The Irishman traces some four decades in Sheeran’s life. A union truck driver as a young family man (still played by De Niro, thanks to mostly convincing CGI trickery), Frank isn’t above shorting deliveries in order to make a few extra bucks. This—and his capacity for casual violence—attracts the attention and admiration of Philadelphia crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who in turn recommends Frank for heavy tasks to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The years go by, the bodies pile up, and Frank remains implacable throughout, capable of murdering a man, then calmly reading about it in the newspaper while sharing breakfast with his young daughter the next morning.

Frank seems unfazed—De Niro delivers a chilling, banality-of-evil performance—yet you can feel the weight of those years compounding as this three-and-a-half hour film unspools. Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker occasionally freeze the frame on certain minor characters, as onscreen text tells us when and how they will die. What at first seems like a jokey touch becomes increasingly mournful as the tally grows. Eventually, Frank is tasked with a killing that actually gives him pause, and will haunt him for the rest of his days.

The Irishman opens and closes with scenes of Frank near the end of his life, alone in a nursing home, most of his mob contacts dead or in prison, and his family estranged. In a gesture that is both an homage and an inversion, Scorsese begins the movie with one of his signature single takes, as the camera floats along the halls of the nursing home until it finds Frank in his wheelchair. It’s a gray-haired variation on what is perhaps the director’s most famous single-take sequence: the dazzling Steadicam shot in Goodfellas that follows Henry Hill and his date (Lorraine Bracco) from the street outside of the Copacabana into a side door, through the kitchen, and to a prime table waiting for them on the show floor.

The music accompanying that moment in Goodfellas is The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” In The Irishman, the single take unfolds to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—still Motown, but in a minor key. Reflective and longing, “In the Still of the Night” sings of things lost and yet still hoped for:

I remember, that night in May
The stars were bright above
I'll hope, and I'll pray
To keep your precious love
Well before the light
Hold me again
With all of your might
In the still of the night

Where can such love be found? For decades, Frank Sheeran did what he was told. He stole, he killed, he covered up, he killed again. His reward was the cold fact that no one ever felt it necessary to murder him. Yet as the camera backs away from his room in the nursing home near the end of The Irishman, death is still crouched at his door. “Leave it open,” he tells the departing priest, who has offered to take Frank’s confession but has yet to hear it. Is there hope in that request, or fear? Just when grace miraculously sneaks its way into this merciless world, offering itself to a man who in no way deserves it, Frank Sheeran is unsure if he can accept. After all, it would be against the rules.

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Topics: Movies