There’s not much that can be said about Martin Scorsese’s sprawling 3.5 hour crime epic that hasn’t been said already, but thanks to a gorgeous new DVD and Blu-ray release courtesy of The Criterion Collection, we are once again talking about The Irishman.
Much of the hype surrounding the film over its 10+ years of development focused on the fact that it would reunite director Scorsese with stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since 1995’s Casino, while also introducing the legendary Al Pacino into the fold. Not only that, but it promised a return to the epic mob drama genre that Scorsese defined with masterpieces like Goodfellas back in the day.
The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a ruthless mob hitman. The film’s framing device sees him as an old man wasting away in a nursing home, as he reflects on the events that defined his career as a hitman and gangster, particularly the role he played in the mysterious disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), his long-time friend, and his involvement with the Bufalino crime family, led by the quietly intense Russell Bufalino (Pesci).
Clocking in at 3 hours and 29 minutes, The Irishman is a lengthy watch – but by no means even remotely indulgent. This is an old-school epic of grandiose scale, covering almost 60 years of history in the film’s slow, meditative narrative. The film’s state-of-the-art de-aging technology makes this 60 year+ setting possible, as De Niro, Pesci and co. perform their characters across many decades. Despite occasionally looking imperfect, the film’s visuals are generally astounding, and any shortcomings are hardly noticeable once you are transfixed by the plot.
While Scorsese’s earlier mob dramas were often fast, violent and almost thriller-esque in delivery, The Irishman is something far more reflective and introspective. That’s not to say the film lacks any tension or violence – far from it. But for the most part, the film’s style has more in common with his 2016 drama Silence than his iconic gangster flicks. As the film is framed around an elderly narrator’s recollections, the film does have the slow and quiet structure of your grandad telling you a story – if your grandad was a violent gangster assassin. Feeling more like a eulogy to a bygone era, the film does not glamorise or glorify the inner-workings of the mob. On-screen titles tell us how and when characters will meet their grisly ends as they are introduced, reminding us that there is very rarely a happy ending for these nefarious types. This is a film about death.
The Irishman may not be everyone’s cup of tea – almost reaching the length of a TV mini-series, it is certainly a long ol’ slog for anyone who isn’t interested in this kind of slow, meditative cinema. Those expecting another Goodfellas or Casino were, unsurprisingly, disappointed. This is a whole other bag. As Scorsese and his roster of celebrated performers have grown older, so has the style of this film. The Irishman is on the whole an understated, slow and dark drama about regret, guilt, and the choices we make along the way.
But with a feel that is unmistakably Scorsese, there is certainly a lot to like here for fans of the former films – not least the phenomenal performances that make up the 3 leads. Robert De Niro is at his quietest here in the titular role of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, while Al Pacino does one of his most intense and shoutiest performances yet, and that’s saying something considering his filmography. But the film belongs to Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for the role of Russell Bufalino. This is Pesci at his most understated, delivering an almost silently intense and intimidating performance that reminds us why he is one of the most iconic gangster character actors. Watching The Irishman is simply watching 3 absolute masters at work on screen and 1 behind the lens, and it is thrilling.
The Irishman is a masterpiece – it’s as simple as that. And those who are wondering why this home release warrants the purchase (as the film is readily available on Netflix), look no further than the wealth of special features including an extensive Making Of featurette, a new video essay and a gorgeous new digital master of the film approved by Scorsese with a fantastic Dolby Atmos track available on the Blu-ray. This release is quite simply essential for any self-respecting film fan’s collection.