With Netflix’s original content, they are known for pushing out quantity. The company wants to be more than just the producer of a wide amount of content and is increasingly focusing on quality content that can win awards too. And perhaps none of Netflix’s offerings has ever shown this desire more than filmmaking master Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman which has seen the streaming giant fork out a reported $175 million to bring it to life.
That is the kind of money that would make most big movie studies baulk, even more so for the likes of Netflix with no box office appeal. It’s clear from the get-go though that The Irishman is not about making money. This is filmmaking in pursuit of art (and probably some awards). Probably more than any other high profile release this year, we have a movie that is so expertly put together, so wonderfully crafted, and yet so not designed for mass appeal at all. This despite its popular cast of stalwart mobsters Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
After all, being 3 hours and 29 minutes long is not something that is going to draw wide appeal from many viewers (Thankfully, on Netflix, you can at least pause it for those bathroom breaks that you will inevitably need to make watching this movie). Scorsese takes full advantage of that extended runtime, holding several great looking and extravagant shots that further showcase his already legendary filmmaking skills. The problem is that these hugely extended beats arguably bring very little to the film’s story, going from measured to a little self-indulgent.
It is a fantastic story though that will reward your required patience if you stick with it, as Frank Sheeran (De Niro) narrates his life as he went from WWII soldier to a mafia hitman working for infamous mobster Russell Buffalino (Pesci), and eventually caught up in the very public disappearance of powerful labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran shares all, how he got to this position, understanding the whole criminal network he engaged in, how his executions took place, the toll it took on his family, and the eventual remorse he experienced along the way. It is a powerful story, though I suspect one that starts off a little too slow for many people – and drags on a little too long.
It might sound weird talking pejoratively about a lengthy runtime and meticulous pacing in a review of what is actually a remarkable film. The reason for this is because the runtime and pacing are indeed the most divisive concerns about the movie and your love of this film will depend on how much patience you have for those two aspects. The Irishman will easily be considered one of the best films of the year or one of the worst, depending on how viewers feel about its slow nature.
The script itself is excellent and a masterclass in character development as screenwriter Steven Zaillian and Scorsese organically build up their world and the people in it, seamlessly blending historical facts with their own speculations. The duo uses some time-jumping mechanics to expand on the mindset of characters at appropriate times, so you always understand their thinking and maybe even sympathise with their dark ways.
In many ways, The Irishman will probably be compared to Goodfellas, one of Scorsese’s most iconic mob movies which starred both De Niro and Pesci. Those comparisons will be correct and not just because of its theme and shared cast. There are many story threads which the two movies share about how easy it is for a person to get caught up in the mafia’s world and the different political battles that play out. However, while Goodfellas was punchy, graphic and perhaps a bit funnier in a macabre kind of way, The Irishman sees Scorsese use a much more meticulous and measured hand to take you deeper into the mind of its anti-heroes, resulting in much more powerful storytelling. Brevity be damned.
That the film features some of cinema’s greatest actors certainly helps as the trio of de Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are at their very best here and will likely to be up for big awards early next year. It’s De Niro who is most certainly the main lead and occupies most of the screen time though, and the veteran brings the character of Frank Sheeran to life in an excellent way, especially in tackling the different phases of life and building to quite an emotional finale.
Despite this though, Pesci and Pacino still steal scenes of their own and it’s arguable that Pacino has the best material to work with. These screen legends may all have aged significantly since their heyday, but their advancing years have done nothing to dampen their passion and ability on screen. And that level of thespian quality carries through to the fantastic support cast that includes the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jesse Plemons, and Harvey Keitel.
Much has been made of the innovative visual effects used in this film to de-age its old stars for many of the scenes taking place during their younger days – which is also the reason for the significant costs of the film. At least this money has been well spent because, mostly, you don’t really notice the effect in motion (stills are a different matter). It will take a sharp eye to spot the difference between the make-up and CGI and the detail of emotion that still shows through these younger faces is remarkably impressive. This type of technology is definitely the future of the industry, and it’s remarkable to see it used in a movie that is not a big comic book blockbuster. It cost a fortune, but the results speak for themselves.
The Irishman is vintage Scorsese. The maestro understands how to make a mafia movie like no other and he is at his very best here. His direction and attention to detail is on another level and backed by this stellar cast, you’re drawn in to become a part of this seedy underworld. Its biggest issue is really that Scorsese and co occasionally linger, add one or two too many beats and the film has simply become too long. It’s not as if these extras are bad – not at all – they’re probably just not necessary. If you’re one for listening to introspective dialogue performed masterfully and some beautiful panoramic shots and great character development though, then this could be one of the movies of the year for you. It was for me. Others may run out of patience with it and rather binge an entire season of their favourite show instead.
Last Updated: December 4, 2019