There’s been so much fuss about the extraordinary – and somewhat baffling – de-ageing in The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s first film for Netflix, that it’s almost eclipsed the potential it had for being a very good film. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci have teamed up with the Taxi Driver director for a crime epic based on Charles Brandt’s mafia memoir I Heard You Paint Houses.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman and Second World War veteran who, in his old age, reflects on a lifetime in the mafia, particularly his involvement in the disappearance of labour leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), who was his friend, and his time with the Bufalino crime family.
The film is long, at a whopping three-and-a-half hours, which is a big ask for those potentially watching it on their iPhones via Netflix. But it is also, the first critics to see it say, a triumph. After a screening in New York, the first verdicts are out – and they have amounted to an impressive 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes’ scale. Here’s why:
As one might expect from a director of such loving precision, The Irishman is exquisitely made, every detail carefully considered, every location perfectly picked and with such a gargantuan budget at hand, it feels utterly transporting, a film to be savoured on a big, crisp screen rather than half-watched on a smartphone. De-ageing quibbles aside, the craftsmanship contained here is flawless and my main reservation about its Netflix availability is that not enough people will get to appreciate the delicacy of Scorsese and his team’s work in theatres.
Scorsese, as ever, riskily courts sympathy for these thugs, and while there might be some notes of over-reverence in The Irishman, I think he mostly maintains the proper perspective. These are bad guys who’ve done bad things, but in the movie’s whispery allegory, all that misdeed is a harsh metaphor for the scrambling we do in our own lives. In The Irishman’s arresting final act, Scorsese captures the smallness and loneliness of life, its pathetic flattening out—time, in some senses but not all, eventually erodes away all of our context.