What Makes A Man Not Feel?

Does Frank Sheeran really have no conscience? How can a man kill with no compunction –  and not feel anything? In Martin Scorsese’s engagingly (and not too long), fictionalized film, The Irishman, we watch Frank as he moves up the ladder of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters. With just a little help from his friends. The mob, especially Russell Bufalino, figures greatly in his success. And, also, in making Frank the hitman he is. Fear is a part of it. And, his belief that this is what he has to do to keep his family safe. But, when he must kill his good friend, Jimmy Hoffa because Russell says so, that act begins to eat away at his icy cold, hard shell. Why he lives in deep freeze is as complicated as the way his daughter Peggy watches.

Of course, The Irishman is a fictionalized account of Frank Sheeran’s crimes. We don’t know he killed Jimmy Hoffa. That’s up for grabs. What’s true are the emotional effects of being a killer and having a killer for a dad. Witness Peggy. Her eyes. Watching. And, her father’s defense: “I didn’t know them.” So he doesn’t feel anything; nothing at all.

The song, “In the still of the night” plays over and over in The Irishman.  What happens in the still of those night hours, in the darkness of the city, in the eyes of some who see, are the workings of the mob. And, The Irishman begins with Frank Sheeran, an old man in a nursing home, remembering. Remembering his part in – “painting houses.”

Why Frank Needs Russell Bufalino

Before painting houses, Frank (Robert DeNiro) was just “one of a thousand working stiffs.” Sound like painting houses is a menial job? Think again. Painting houses, in mob terms, is murder. Splattering blood. That was Frank’s job. After he met Russell. (Joe Pesci). And, Frank did it well.

He looks like a tough man, doesn’t he? Even before Russell, he takes care of people he feels “do wrong.” Steals when it serves him. But, really, he doesn’t feel safe. Too many“bad people” out there. Getting rid of them makes sense, right?

Frank just doesn’t realize (at first) that Russell’s one of them. Russell seems so kind. Kind in the ways people who have two very divided sides can be kind. When it serves them. And, he’s older; knows more. Helps Frank fix his broken-down truck.

Frank can “drive ‘em, not fix ‘em.” And, Russell – he can fix ‘em. As well as many other things in Frank’s difficult life. “Back in business, kid.” Turns out, Russell owns not only Stucky’s Texaco but the whole road. Actually, Russell owns quite a lot of territory.

Soon, he owns Frank. Takes him under his wing. A hungry man. For (what seems like) love, respect, money (he’s got a lot of kids). Especially power. So he can feel like a bigger man. In his own eyes, more than anything else. He’s a prime target for Russell.

Russell is Russell Bufalino, crime boss in Philadelphia. He’s a man without children. And, Frank becomes his longed-for son. That is, as long as Frank does whatever Russell tells him. Frank makes money. Lots of it. Gains power. See how he moves up the Teamsters ladder? And, his family is safe.  Sort of. But, not with their own dad.

Peggy’s Eyes & What They See

Always watching. Peggy’s (Lucy Gallina, younger Peggy; Anna Paquin, older Peggy) are the eyes that see. The frightened one. Mostly of her dad.

It all starts with the shopkeeper. Yes, the grocer pushed Peggy. That was bad. And, Frank will protect his kids. Violently. This is before he meets Russell, but he has it in him. He grabs Peggy’s hand. And, she watches – as he beats the grocer. Stomping on him; crushing his hands. The last time Peggy tells on anyone.

Peggy’s only 8, but her eyes are wide open. Now, she knows what her dad can do. Sees the gun he packs at night. For “work.” Keeps her distance. Hears things in the news. About Frank. And, dead people. She suspects. In fact, she knows. And, “Uncle Russell?” Peggy doesn’t like him; as hard as he tries to get her love.

“Uncle Jimmy,” he’s different. He’s warm. Doesn’t seem so scary. Peggy adores him. No, she doesn’t see the whole Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). That’s for sure. But, what she does see is a man who cares about people’s rights. Fights for them and a better life. But, caring, that’s what Peggy wants and needs.

Peggy’s eyes? They’re the eyes that watch. Know right from wrong. That hate what she sees. Yet, eyes that are helpless to do anything about it. They’re the conscience Frank Sheeran won’t let himself have. That’s how a man has no problem with murder.

Frank’s buried any kind of conscience long ago. Pushed it aside. That’s what serves his goals. Anyone in the way has to go. Makes sense to him: “Bad people” shouldn’t live. His twisted conviction. One he must live by.  To justify “painting houses.”

But, Jimmy Hoffa? He’s not one of those. And, Frank loves him. In Frank’s limited way.

Killing Jimmy: A Different Story

Frank and Jimmy – they’re tight. Good friends, you could say. With benefits. Frank’s a direct line to Russell Bufalino, and Jimmy, in return, helps Frank become President of Teamsters Local 326. More status and power than Frank’s ever had, except via Russell and in Russell’s eyes. To a point. That’s the issue.

You can’t cross Russell. The line between being in or out is dicey. Sure, Russell tells Frank that he’s always safe; he’s “his kid.” But, Frank’s been around. He sees how thin loyalties really are. And, he has to play both sides. The Union Man, but mostly into Russell Bufalino’s hands.  So, that ’s what happens with Jimmy too. Friendship? Or…?

For a while, Frank protects Jimmy. Rises to his defense. Tries to calm him. Even warn him. Keep him in the mob’s good graces. But: “Jimmy lost sight of the whole picture,” because, like Frank, his #1 goal is power. Yet, Frank plays to his audience. While Jimmy thumbs his nose at the danger he’s in.

Yes, Frank’s need for power (mostly over fear) creates pure self-interest. So, friendship can’t come first. And, loyalties? They lie where there’s the most chance for self-protection.

Feelings are dangerous in Frank’s world; inside and out. So is self-awareness. As hard as Frank tries, over time Jimmy’s pig-headedness gets in his way. Jimmy won’t be controlled. His hatred for his rival, The Little Guy (Stephen Graham), Head of Union 560, blinds him. He’ll go down fighting. The Teamster’s Union, everyone knows, is his.

And, when he won’t listen, one too many times, well, he has to go. And, of course, Frank is Russell’s #1 man for the job. Because he has to choose his loyalties carefully, Frank can’t say no. Worse, he’s forced to betray his friend.

“How Could I Make That Call?”

We already know. Feelings anything is scary for Frank. So, he avoids calling Jimmy Hoffa’s wife, Josephine (Welker White) – after he’s killed Jimmy and gotten away with it. How would she ever suspect that Frank Sheeran would kill his friend? But, a friend would reach out, right? To a grieving wife. Frank can’t.

Talking to Jo might arouse some feelings. Even some guilt. If Frank could feel remorse. But, he won’t let himself. Hard as nails, Frank is. Has to be. That’s what his life demands. The way he can kill. Mostly, how he doesn’t see (or want to) how he makes others feel. Peggy stares. The silent one asks if he’s called.

Frank’s made many bad “calls” in his life – and one of them (he knows somewhere inside in a place he won’t open up) is killing his friend. And, this call to Jo? Well, he knows he must. Or it’ll look strange, for him. He calls. Lies. But, the call rattles him.

He must remember Russell’s words: “You know how strong I made you? You’re my kid.” Yes, he has to be strong. Not let one single feeling crack him. Just like Russell.

This is how a man like Frank goes through the life he’s made. Feelings put in cold storage. In fact, a man like Frank? The thing that scares him most is feeling anything.

Peggy & A Father Like Frank

The Irishman isn’t Peggy’s story, Yet, it is.

A killer father has his effects. Peggy plays the dutiful daughter. Shows up for his award. A killer father means you lose your family. Live in fear. Can’t go to him for help. You know what he’ll do. Never show how you feel. Except silently.

Peggy’s only power is with “Uncle Jimmy;” her smiles at him. As she, stony-faced, ignores her dad. His pleading eyes. Confusion about her rejection. Seeing Jimmy get what he wants. Yes, she has some power. To hurt him back. The only way she can.

Or, you have to disappear. And, she does. When she knows he killed Jimmy Hoffa.

The backdrop of Peggy’s life is murder. The noise of it. Of threat. Anyone in the way is taken out. Anyone who has a different idea. Gets too independent. Too sure of his own wishes and goals. What can that possibly mean to a kid like Peggy? A warning. Don’t go astray. Disagree. Or, speak up. How can a kid like that be free to be herself?

Yet, this, in a different way, is Frank’s story too. Something happened to him early in life. Must have. Then, he met Russell. Russell, his surrogate dad; a dad like Frank.

What Makes A Man Not Feel?

Frank must not only listen to Russell Bufalino, but to a voice inside his own head that warms him. Don’t open up your feelings. Danger. Feelings are danger.   

So, a man like Frank goes to every measure not to feel. Denial. Rationalization: “Those are bad people.” “I’m keeping my family safe.” With no idea about real love. About sadness. And, mostly, guilt. That’s what made him a killer in the first place. Killing off his feelings so that he can do whatever he wants.

That means nullifying the humanness of the ones he’s killed. Seeing his kids, not as themselves, with their own feelings and fears  – but as his. Yes, “Frank gets the job done.” That’s what Jimmy Hoffa says about him when he gives Frank an award for his service being President of Local 326.

Yes, the job of having no feelings. Being Russell’s wingman. Creating a false narrative of the seemingly happy family he wants it to be. He’s good at those jobs. Not at being a good father; or a good friend. Jimmy presents Frank’s award just as Frank asked. But, Russell and Frank plot to kill Jimmy on the mezzanine, while Jimmy and Peggy dance.

Frank Sheeran is able to kill. Because he’s already killed his heart. A killer can’t afford to have one. Or he’d see his own cold-blooded ways. In the eyes of the ones, he’s hurt.  Staring right at him. He’d see. But, he only sees himself.

But we see. We see the effect of a man that kills his feelings. Can’t put himself in others’ shoes. Call it narcissism, because it is. Frank (Scorcese’s Frank in The Irishman) ends up in prison. Reenie (Stephanie Kurtzuba), his wife, dies. Time goes on. As time does. At Reenie’s funeral, Peggy doesn’t stare at Frank. She won’t even look at him.

As The Irishman ends, Frank’s an old man; Russell’s dead. What’s left for a man like Frank? One who’s been dead inside for a very, very long time.

End Of The Road For Frank

Church. Hospital. Graveyard. Fear creeping in. Maybe, persecution. Being buried in the ground is final. Final as the ones he’s killed; coming back to haunt him.

Frank wants something he can’t get from his kids. Forgiveness. So, he doesn’t have to feel regrets. Peggy’s a teller at a bank now. Maybe she’ll listen. But, she closes her window and walks away. That’s as final as final can be. As final as death.

He wants absolution. Without any real remorse. His kids won’t give it. So, at the end of his life, he goes to church. Talks to a priest. Maybe he’ll get God’s forgiveness before he dies? “Do you feel anything for what you’ve done,” the priest asks? “No. Water under the dam.” “For the families?” “I didn’t know them.” “You don’t feel anything at all?”

No. He can’t. But, you know something? When you’ve killed your feelings, being dead inside is actually as scary and final as Peggy turning her back. Frank doesn’t want final. Being buried in the ground is as final as the way he’s buried his soul.

So, he’ll get a vault in a building. A mausoleum. There’s a place that’ll hold him. The holding he couldn’t offer Peggy. Because he wouldn’t feel or suffer for what he’s done,

Peggy suffered for him. Alone. Peggy: the secret pain he carries. His rejected conscience; his closed-down heart. “Father, don’t shut the door all the way. I don’t like it.” No, it doesn’t feel good to be shut out. It’s all too lonely.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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