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In Defense of Peggy's Silence in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman

This piece was published on December 12, 2019 and is being republished for Women Writers Week.

For a beautifully produced, Oscar-ready offering from a maestro at the very pinnacle of his craft, "The Irishman" arrived with no small share of controversy. The movie’s three-and-a-half-hour run-time launched afleet of memes, as did its use of digital de-aging techniques to make its lead actors (all of whom could be card-carrying members of the AARP) appear to be in their thirties and forties. Then, of course, Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to amusement park rides and inadvertently turned Twitter into Fury Road, a bruising expanse of hellscape where only the loudest survives. But the controversy that has lingered on the longest is the film’s depiction of women—specifically, protagonist Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina, and then Anna Paquin). 

The online discourse around the movie has isolated Peggy’s lack of dialogue as evidence of Scorsese’s supposedly old-school sexism; the fact that she speaks just seven lines becomes a focal point of performative wokeness, proclaiming the film just another goombah bro revelry. But this interpretation is shallow, supposing that dialogue alone gives a character an inner life—or that silence can’t be strategic. Though my life might seem far removed from the gangland squabbles that drive the film, I can relate, deeply, to the ways that Scorsese, screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and Gallina and Paquin, render the theme of parental estrangement: I know what it’s like to grow up under the thumb of a father who believes that tenderness is beneath him, who only understands that might makes right, even—or perhaps, especially—if it’s cruel. As a child, I sat at many a supper table, studying my father, waiting to feel that slight, plucked wire vibration that I knew could, often would, escalate into a very bad mood.

If anything, Scorsese subtly frames some of the early family dinners from Peggy’s perspective, though she doesn’t speak a word. The camera circles the table, where the Sheerans eat, their faces locked in rictuses of forced cheerfulness, all to appease Frank—who has just curb-stomped a grocer for being rude to Peggy. The camera stops briefly, holds tight on Gallina’s face, which does not mask itself, reveals its pensiveness; then, the camera widens again to show De Niro’s Frank at the head of the table, full of kingly certitude. The moment is a perfect, claustrophobic reflection of what it’s like to live with a petty tyrant of a father. I know the power of silence precisely because my father wielded it against me: When he wanted to inflict an Old Testament-level of devastation, he would stop talking to me. As in not one word. For days. For two weeks. Silence can be far crueler than screaming. So, when I was an adult, when I wanted it to be known that I would never forgive him, I did not scream my throat into pulp. I gave him nothing. Only silence was boundless enough to contain my rage.  

Even though "The Irishman" isn’t exactly a conventional family drama, it still uses the father-daughter dynamic to make some very clear, unequivocal points—most compellingly, it never pressures Peggy into the kind of big, cathartic moment that will likely lead to some kind of reconciliation, and, with that reconciliation, a redemption that Frank doesn’t deserve. The movie knows that reconciliation isn’t a happy ending; after all the people Frank has betrayed and murdered (including one of his closest friends, Jimmy Hoffa), after all the pain he’s caused his family, there can be no happy ending. While I understand that this is an objectively devastating, coal-dark truth, I still find a tiny diamond of validation in it: Sometimes, staying angry is the right choice, the only choice. The film anchors its moral certitude in Peggy’s prolonged rejection of her father. To interpret the depth of her characterization exclusively through the number of lines she’s given seems willfully myopic—it negates the richness of her interiority and insists that only overt displays of boldness define a Strong Female Character™. 

The controversy around "The Irishman" recalls this summer’s debate about Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood." It’s true that Tate receives less screen time, and far less dialogue, within the film’s central triumvirate. However, this doesn’t mean that her presence is slight, or insignificant. The sequence that is arguably "Hollywood"'s emotional centerpiece—the moment that reminds us that this is a movie about loving movies—belongs to Tate, not to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the go-along-to-get-along stuntman, or Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the actor whose spirit is as pickled as his liver. She watches herself on-screen, surrounded by an equally enchanted audience; as she hears the laughter, right on cue, she remembers the martial arts training that she received (from Bruce Lee, no less) to deliver the crowd-pleasing coups de grâce to the villain. Here is a woman marveling at the realization that she has a gift for, and a future in, what she loves. 

It’s far more triumphant than anything Tarantino reserves for a character like Daisy Domergue in "The Hateful Eight." Jennifer Jason Leigh's grizzled bandit queen may get more lines than Tate, but we never get a sense of her as a fully-realized person with her own ambitions; she exists mostly to receive increasingly vicious punishments, which are played up for laughs. Defining a character’s richness through an arbitrary tally of words is an exercise in shallowness, a refusal to engage with context and nuance. Some of the most iconic characters in film, like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name or Tom Hardy’s Mad Max, are men of few words—their inscrutability makes them profound. If one were to tally, say, Ansel Elgort’s lines in "Baby Driver" or Nicolas Cage’s lines in "Mandy," one would hardly have a soliloquy’s worth of words.

This insistence that word count alone makes a compelling character is particularly foolish when assessing "The Irishman": After all, Joe Pesci—who essentially played human volcanos in "Goodfellas" and "Casino," men spewing the magma of their own wild ids—has received unanimous praise for his more reserved turn as Russell Bufalino, Frank’s mentor and head of the Bufalino crime family. Russell’s silence is rightfully viewed as evidence of his blade-quick cunning, his strength as a crime boss. Yet Peggy’s silence, which conveys its own kind of strength, is so summarily dismissed as lack of characterization.  

The discourse forgets that Scorsese is the same man who gave us the indelible Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), all bristling nerve and churned-up motormouth, or Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), that smooth-talking cyclone. Although, if we are to consider strength in terms of virtue alone—which other, equally tedious ideals of women in film often do—Peggy eclipses them both, since she resists the glitzy drift into the underworld. Karen gets turned on when her boyfriend gives her a bloodied gun; Peggy stares her father down, steely and unyielding, as the news reports on a man he gunned down in public. Peggy is so self-possessed that even Russell is overly eager to earn her approval. He tries to make her laugh with a lame, infantilizing joke about Heaven being so high up “so little birdies don’t bump their heads” and a gift of ice skates. She responds to both with a withering dismissiveness that deflates and humiliates him, this man who, with a single nod of assent, can order a man’s death.

Peggy’s silence gives her immeasurable power over Frank, especially as he ages and seeks the comfort of absolution: It’s deeply telling that the one date he remembers with piercing clarity is August 3, 1975—the day she stops talking to him for good. When he speaks the date aloud, he gives it as talismanic intensity, as if it holds the truth about his impending, and eternal, doom. Her silence has the power to damn him. One of the movie’s most brutal scenes is Frank’s desperate attempt at a final reconciliation. He tracks Peggy down to her job as a bank teller, and stands waiting in the line for her window, his body bent and cowed with the ache of time and his own eroded bones. As he approaches her window, she snaps up the “this station is closed” sign. She walks away even as he wails after her, “I just want to talk.” 

The searing emotionality of that scene—his desperation and her arctic resolve—has haunted me since I watched it, not long before I went to Thanksgiving dinner. As I set the turkey on the table, I looked up catch my father staring at me from the other room; his face was like some tender animal that had been stripped from its shell. I know how hard it must have been for Peggy to walk away. I also know how necessary it is, to leave her father behind. I have come to appreciate silence not as a sign of weakness or capitulation, but as a finely sharpened dagger that finds its way to the heart, every time. 

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