Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran recounts his life story while in a retirement home. He was a WWII veteran who worked as a truck driver for a meat-packing company before he started to befriend gangsters. He is introduced to Russell Bufalino, head of a major crime family in Pennsylvania. Russell brings Frank on as a hitman after learning of his skills killing enemies in the war. Through Russell, Frank meets union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who brings Frank on as his bodyguard.
Jimmy gets into trouble with the law and goes to prison. On the outside, Frank continues to work for Russell, even killing a hotheaded gangster named Crazy Joe Gallo for him. After Jimmy gets out of prison, he tries to regain his position of power, but his attitude doesn’t sit well with Russell and other crime family heads.
In 1975, Frank and Russell go to a wedding with their wives for Russell’s niece. He informs Frank that Jimmy now has a hit on his head. They convince Jimmy that he is to meet with other Teamster leaders, only for Frank to get him alone and kill him. Jimmy’s body is disposed of, which leads to his famed disappearance. Knowing Frank was involved, his daughter Peggy never speaks to him again.
Frank, Russell, and others involved in Jimmy’s disappearance are arrested. Russell dies in prison, while Frank is later released, albeit alone and unloved after all that he is done. He spends his final years preparing for his inevitable death.
Sitting in a nursing home in his wheelchair, the aging Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran, recounts his time as a mafia hitman.
In 1950s Pennsylvania, Sheeran drives meat packing delivery trucks and starts to sell some of the contents of his shipments to a local gangster. After getting accused by his company of theft, lawyer Bill Bufalino gets him off after Sheeran refuses to give the judge any names of who he was selling to. Bufalino introduces Sheeran to his cousin Russell, the head of the northeast Pennsylvania crime family. Sheeran begins to do jobs for Russell, including murders. Soon, Russell introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who has financial ties with the Bufalino crime family and is struggling to deal with fellow rising Teamster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, as well as mounting pressure from the federal government. Hoffa becomes close with Sheeran and his family, especially his daughter Peggy, and Sheeran becomes Hoffa’s main bodyguard while he is on the road.
Following the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, Bufalino is thrilled while Hoffa is livid. Kennedy’s brother Robert Kennedy, who was named Attorney General, forms a “Get Hoffa” squad in an effort to bring down Hoffa, who is eventually arrested in 1964 for jury tampering. While in prison, his replacement atop the Teamsters Frank Fitzsimmons begins overspending the groups’ funds and making loans out to the mafia. Hoffa’s relationship with Provenzano, who was himself arrested for extortion, also deteriorates beyond repair. Hoffa is eventually released via a Presidential pardon from Richard Nixon in 1971, although he is forbidden from taking part in any Teamsters activities until 1980.
Hoffa was scheduled to meet with Giacalone and Provenzano before his disappearance in 1975. FBI photo of Anthony Giacalone.
Despite this, Hoffa begins his plan to retake his power atop the organized unions. Hoffa’s growing disrespect for other Teamster leaders and related crime family interests begins to worry Bufalino. During a testimonial dinner in Sheeran’s honor, Bufalino tells Sheeran to confront Hoffa and warn him that the heads of the crime families are not pleased with his behavior. Hoffa then discloses to Sheeran that he knows what Bufalino and the other dons don’t know, and further claims that he is untouchable because if anything ever happened to him, they would all end up in prison.
In 1975, while on their way to the wedding of Bill Bufalino’s daughter, Russell tells Sheeran that things have reached their breaking point with Hoffa, and his death has been sanctioned. The two drive to an airport where Sheeran gets on a flight to Detroit. Sheeran tells Hoffa he will be in town early in the day, but arrives only late afternoon. Hoffa, who had scheduled a meeting at a local diner with Provenzano and Anthony Giacalone, is surprised to see Sheeran arriving in a car with Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien and Sal Briguglio, another gangster. They advise Hoffa that the meeting was moved to a house where Provenzano and Bufalino are waiting for them. Sheeran assures Hoffa that everything is fine and joins them in the car. Upon entering the house, Hoffa is surprised to realize that no one else is there and that he is being set up. Hoffa turns to caution Sheeran, who then shoots him twice at point-blank range before leaving the gun and the body at the entrance. After Sheeran leaves, two younger gangsters arrive to take Hoffa’s body to a crematorium to eliminate all traces of him.
Sheeran, Russell, Provenzano and others are eventually convicted on various charges unrelated to Hoffa’s murder as promised by Hoffa, and one by one they begin to die in prison. Sheeran is eventually released and placed in a retirement home. He tries to make peace with his alienated daughters, but Peggy never forgives him for Hoffa’s disappearance. Sheeran prepares for his eventual death, well aware that few if any of his family will be left to mourn him.
The film opens in the early 2000’s in a retirement home. Sitting alone in a wheelchair is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). He reflects on his life leading up to where he is now, starting with his profession as a “house painter” – in other words, a hitman.
In the 1950’s, Frank, a World War II veteran, lives in Pennsylvania working as a truck driver for a meat-packing company. He’s married to Mary (Aleksa Palladino) and has a daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina). In his work, he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who advises him to get his truck fixed. When Frank asks Russell his name, he instead changes the subject before bidding Frank farewell.
Frank starts to rub elbows with local gangster Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), providing him with some of the goods he carries. On a delivery, a client sees that Frank’s truck is empty, and his employers accuse him of stealing. Frank goes to lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who helps Frank avoid legal repercussions by telling him to not give up the names of anybody that he was selling to. Later on, Bill formally introduces Frank to Russell, who is his cousin. Frank and Russell eat together, in which Frank discusses his time in the war, and how he was skilled at taking out enemy soldiers.
Frank is asked by a gangster called Whispers (Paul Herman) to take out Russell and his buddy Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Frank doesn’t go through with it and instead brings this information to Russell and Angelo, and when Frank offers to return the money to Whispers, Angelo assures Frank that he won’t be needing it anymore.
One afternoon, Frank goes home to see that Peggy is looking upset. Mary tells him that she knocked something over at the supermarket, and the store owner shoved her. Frank takes Peggy back to the store where he violently confronts the store owner, beating him and throwing him through the glass door before assaulting him in the street, in full view of Peggy and others walking by. This leads Peggy to become terrified of her father.
Russell brings Frank in on his crime business as a hitman, and he becomes well acquainted with a number of other gangsters (the onscreen text letting us know how all of them died horribly). During this time, Frank leaves Mary for a woman named Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba), and they later have two other daughters, Connie and Dolores. He is eventually contacted by union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) after hearing about his work “painting houses”. Present Day Frank informs us that there is more to Jimmy that people don’t know other than his famed disappearance. Jimmy leads the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and is also in league with Russell and his gang. Jimmy also has an issue with Teamsters Vice President Anthony “Tony Pro” Provezano (Stephen Graham), as he has his own plans for his business. Frank becomes a bodyguard for Jimmy, and he also brings him along to meet the family. Peggy is most fond of Jimmy, even more so than she is of Russell, whom she knows is bad news.
Jimmy and his Teamsters are staunchly against the Kennedys, which makes JFK’s election in 1960 hit a serious nerve for Jimmy. He rants to his men, and with Frank in the room, he thinks he is yelling at him too, but Jimmy assures Frank that he is not including him in the rant. After JFK is assassinated, Jimmy makes an insensitive comment to the press that Bobby Kennedy (Jack Huston), the former General Attorney, is now “just another lawyer.” Bobby later forms a squad to go after Jimmy, and he is eventually arrested for jury tampering. In Jimmy’s absence, the Teamsters is taken over by Frank “Fitz” Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba), who starts to use the group’s funds for himself or to make loans to the mob.
In prison, Jimmy finds that Tony Pro is also there for extortion. Tony makes some attempt to hash out his issues with Jimmy, but they can’t reach an agreement, and it just leads to them getting into a brawl, which is broken up by guards and other inmates.
During a parade, a random mobster is shot dead in the middle of a crowd. Frank and Russell figure that the gunman was sent by Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), who works with black gangsters to carry out his dirty work. As the name suggests, Joe is a hotheaded loose cannon. On his birthday, Frank and Russell accompany Joe to see Don Rickles (Jim Norton) perform, in which Joe almost snaps at Rickles for a joke. The mobsters agree that Joe is too much of a liability, so Frank is sent to take him out. Present Day Frank recalls picking specific guns to do the job. He catches Joe having dinner with his family at Umberto’s, whereupon he shoots at Joe before following him outside and finishing him off in the streets, then making a getaway.
Jimmy is released from prison after Richard Nixon gives him a presidential pardon, but he can’t go back to the Teamsters. Regardless, Jimmy makes an effort to rise back to power, which involves dumping on other Teamster leaders and disregarding crime family activities. Russell asks Frank to talk to Jimmy about his behavior, but Jimmy assures Frank that he can’t be harmed, or else anyone involved will go to jail.
We then jump to 1975 where Frank, Russell, Irene, and Russell’s wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) are headed to a wedding for Bill’s daughter (the film had been cutting back and forth between this since the beginning). Russell tells Frank that it’s time for Jimmy to be taken care of. Frank arrives in Detroit after Jimmy is set to meet with Tony Pro and Anthony Giacalone (Patrick Gallo). Jimmy is surprised to see Frank with his foster son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) and fellow gangster Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) after thinking Tony Pro stood him up. He is told that the meeting has been moved to another house where Tony and Russell are waiting for him. Frank takes Jimmy to the house, where Jimmy finds that it’s empty. Growing nervous and suspicious, Jimmy starts to walk out, only for Frank to shoot him twice in the back of the head. Frank leaves Jimmy’s body there, and it is later picked up by two other men who cremate his body.
Jimmy’s disappearance becomes nationwide news. The Sheeran family watches at home, and after Frank offhandedly mentions he hasn’t called Jo (Jimmy’s wife) yet, Peggy (now played by Anna Paquin), realizes her father had something to do with whatever happened to Jimmy. Present Day Frank informs us that this is the day that Peggy stopped speaking to him.
Frank, Russell, Tony Pro, and others are arrested for suspicions of Jimmy’s disappearance, while guys like Sally Bugs are murdered. Tony Pro dies, while Frank spends one last moment with Russell in prison before Russell is wheeled away to the hospital, where he later dies.
Frank is later released from prison and is sent to the retirement home. He has been diagnosed with cancer and he can barely walk. He visits Peggy at her bank job, but she walks away the moment she sees Frank, even as he begs her to talk to him. His attempts to reconcile with his other daughters is also unsuccessful. With this, Frank simply prepares for his death. He picks out a green coffin and the spot where he wants to be buried.
At the end of the night, Frank is taken to his room by an orderly. He asks the orderly to leave the door open, holding out hope that maybe someone in his family will still care to visit him.