In a way, The Irishman speaks to the odd crossroads where we find ourselves in the midst of the streaming wars. It’s been said, and accurately, that one of Netflix’s strengths is the ability to greenlight the kind of content that traditional film studios usually don’t. It’s likely that most studios relying on theatrical release wouldn’t let anyone — not even Martin Scorsese — make a reflective, three-and-a-half hour gangster drama. Long runtimes are for action-packed franchises, not for a dialogue-heavy life story in which most of the principal cast is over the age of 70.
Yet a theater is undoubtedly the best place to see Scorsese’s new film. This is not necessarily because of any outstanding visuals (though, as a whole, the movie looks great and displays the command of craft you’d expect), but because it requires more concentration to enjoy than a streaming format typically allows. It’s not packed end-to-end with thrilling sequences (though there are explosions aplenty). It’s character-driven, full of small details you have to pay close attention to in order to notice. If you see the film, and you should, catch it during its limited theatrical run, in a darkened room with people around you, rather than at home, where you’ll be surrounded by distractions.
Robert De Niro plays real-life labor union boss Frank Sheeran, who tells the story of his career working with the mob via flashback, Goodfellas-style. As a younger man working as a truck driver, Frank gets connected with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), boss of the Bufalino crime family in northeastern Pennsylvania. Sheeran and Bufalino become tight, and eventually Bufalino passes Sheeran on to work for infamous labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Sheeran and Hoffa develop a strong friendship, which starts to become strained when Hoffa runs afoul of the Italian mob families who helped put him in power. Years later, near the end of his life, Sheeran revisits his experiences and regrets regarding Bufalino and Hoffa. He also considers the legacy he’s leaving his family, particularly his fractured relationship with his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin).
The Irishman deserves attention for its excellent editing (Thelma Schoonmaker, as always, proves a masterful hand at maintaining the tension and focus of each scene), and for its use of de-aging technology, which is barely noticeable, and helps the non-linear narrative keep its shape. But primarily, the film is an actor’s showcase, with meaty arcs for De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, and others, with reigned-in direction that results in some surprisingly restrained performances. Pesci, in particular, is a revelation, with none of the pent-up rage he’s most commonly associated with. As Bufalino, Pesci’s quiet and genial, using his likability as a weapon, never once appearing out of control.
De Niro, similarly, is calm and friendly as Sheeran. He seems like an honest, good guy, loyal, grateful for what he’s been given. He’s a good friend, a solid husband and father. At the same time, Sheeran kills mercilessly, destroys property, and sells out others when asked to by his bosses. But the disparity between the two sides never seems to trouble him much, even when they finally come into wrenching conflict with each other. He remains a “good man” defined by bad deeds.
Ultimately, The Irishman is a movie about guilt and legacy, displayed most prominently by Sheeran’s relationship with his daughter. Scorsese shows Peggy at different ages, always watching, quietly judging her father and his associates. The root of the father-daughter conflict is never directly discussed — if the film deserves any criticism it’s that it gives Paquin, as the adult Peggy, almost no lines — but Peggy’s the closest thing The Irishman has to a conscience. It’s clear her disapproval weighs on Sheeran, even if he never says so.
The Irishman’s strengths are subtle, not showy. While that might make a case that it’s better watched on a small screen, the opposite is actually true. It’s a film that deserves your full attention, enjoying its immersive world and wondering about the inner lives of its hard-to-read characters. It is simultaneously a film that nobody but Netflix would make happen, and a movie that should be watched anywhere but Netflix. Somehow, The Irishman’s existence feels as paradoxical as Frank Sheeran himself, which feels appropriate.