What does the end of 'The Irishman' actually mean? Here's our theory

Scorsese’s genius is that he manages to make this prolonged sequence slow yet compelling, touching but depressing

Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in The Irishman (2019)
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WARNING: There are SPOILERS for The Irishman ahead.

If you're yet to watch this gangster epic on Netflix, then you should right that wrong immediately, before returning to read about its conclusion.

The Irishman has rightfully been hailed as another instant classic from Martin Scorsese, the Oscar-winning director of The Departed, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and many other cult classic films.

Hugely anticipated because it was billed as Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci's grand farewell to the gangster genre, The Irishman, the story of Frank Sheeran's (De Niro) life of crime under mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa's (Al Pacino) death, has managed to astound critics and audiences, not just ­because of its run time, acting, direction, drama, tension, and humour, but also its poignancy.

That's especially true of the last 40 minutes of the film, after Sheeran shoots Hoffa twice in the back of the head under the orders of Bufalino. For the remainder of the film, we see Sheeran become more and more isolated, as his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) disowns him for his part in the death of Hoffa.

epa07939016 US director Martin Scorsese arrives for the screening of 'The Irishman' at the 14th annual Rome Film Festival, in Rome, Italy, 21 October 2019. The film festival runs from 17 to 27 October 2019.  EPA-EFE/ETTORE FERRARI
'The Irishman' has been billed as US director Martin Scorsese's farewell to the gangster genre. EPA

Sheeran goes to jail, as do most of his associates, who either die in prison or are murdered before they could even be locked up behind bars. Ultimately, Sheeran is left alone in a rundown ­nursing home and preparing for his own death, as he picks out his own coffin and burial plot, repeatedly visits a priest, and tries to remind people who Hoffa was.

In the final moments of The Irishman, a visiting priest leaves Sheeran in his bedroom. But as he departs, Sheeran simply says: "Don't shut the door all the way. I don't like that. Leave it open little bit."

With Frank alone again in his wheelchair, the film cuts to black, as the song that opened The IrishmanIn the Still of the Night by The Five Satins – starts to play again.

The ambiguity of this ending has only helped to increase the impact of the film, which is already being touted as an Oscar front-runner. But in order to understand it, we have to go back 210 minutes to its opening seconds.

Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street are examples of only some of Scorsese's films that have great openings. But the beginning of The Irishman is actually much more understated, as the director's famous tracking shot emerges out of the darkness and makes its way around the nursing home, before stopping in front of an elderly and frail Sheeran, all to the sound of In the Still of the Night.

But as the narration begins, and the character starts to tell his story, we don't see his lips move.

Instead, Sheeran's declaration that he was merely a "working guy" is in his head, and when he starts the story, it is clear that he is trying to contextualise all of the crimes and murders he has committed. What unfolds is the explanation of a man who knows he is dying, and understands that his actions wasted and ruined his life and his relationship with his children.

This Sept. 30, 2019 photo shows actor Al Pacino, from left, director Martin Scorsese, and actor Robert De Niro posing for a portrait to promote their upcoming film "The Irishman" in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)
Al Pacino, Scorsese, and De Niro. AFP

Come the final act of The Irishman, Sheeran appears scared even by what's going to happen when he dies. As well as leaving the door ajar for light and some semblance of human interaction, he is relieved to be told by a nurse that he is healthy, and refuses to admit to the FBI that he had any involvement in the death of Hoffa, even though everyone associated with the case is now dead. Except the victim's still-grieving children.

Critics have lavished Scorsese with praise for the rhythmic fashion in which he concludes The Irishman, as he paces it so precisely that audiences get to feel the life being sapped out of Sheeran and experience just how lonely he has become. However, other viewers haven't been so kind. In fact, since the film started streaming on Netflix at the end of November, some subscribers have even gone as far as to call the gangster epic overly long and boring.

Clearly, Scorsese's comments criticising Marvel, which saw him say the studio's output is not cinema, has given him more enemies than Sheeran. Admittedly, The Irishman doesn't feature the wall-to-wall action and entertainment of a Marvel movie. Instead, it has moments of silence and contemplation. It repeatedly challenges and asks its audience to pay attention, look closer and think about the regret, despair and increasing irrelevance that Sheeran is feeling.

Scorsese's genius is that he manages to make this prolonged sequence slow yet compelling, touching but depressing. The latter is a feeling that only grows deeper after you've ruminated on The Irishman even more, and realised that this is Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci saying goodbye to us, the viewer, too.