For an auteur whose work has often been bridled by commercially-minded studio executives, Netflix offers something close to total creative control, a seductive if dangerous proposition. It’s how the streaming behemoth lured everyone from Alfonso Cuarón to Steven Soderbergh to the Coen brothers and it’s partly how ultimate get Martin Scorsese was gotten. Originally set at Paramount, his ambitious, decades-spanning, fact-based crime drama The Irishman was deemed too financially excessive, its budget spinning out to more than $150m. But with the ability to not only bankroll but to remove any fears of box office failure, Netflix welcomed Scorsese with open arms and a gaping chequebook.
The result, boasting a budget usually reserved for a film with a colon in its title and a staggering 209-minute runtime, is a gamble nonetheless given that unquestionable talents have unquestionably struggled with the type of indulgent free reign streaming platforms tend to offer. There’s also the small matter of why the production costs were so high, mainly down to a desire from Scorsese to digitally de-age his primary cast members, a controversial practice that has yet to be perfected. But The Irishman, serving as this year’s splashy opening night premiere of the New York film festival, is not only a successful film on its own terms but a successful example of how this brave new industry shift can benefit those who use great power with great responsibility. Because, quite simply, the film as it is would never have survived the modern studio system without streaming assistance.
Scorsese has referred to it as “a costly experiment” although at its core, it’s familiar, even safe, territory for him. It has been a passion project of his since 2007 and sees him reunited with the Goodfellas and Casino pairing of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. De Niro is Frank Sheeran, a second world war veteran whose ensuing career as a truck driver belied his cold-blooded ability to kill with little remorse. But he soon found his way into a life of crime, first with a bit of light theft and ultimately as an efficient killer, working for mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two became close and led Sheeran to also work alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose corrupt tactics as a labor union leader made him a target to both the authorities and the criminal underworld.
Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian decide to tell Sheeran’s story at three different ages and with the help of similar instayouth tech we have seen in everything from American Horror Story to Avengers: Endgame. But within the confines of a more naturalistic setting, there’s something undeniably jarring about its use, both in how at times it really works and how at times, it really doesn’t. The film’s biggest, creepiest problem lies behind De Niro’s fortysomething eyes – or rather the film’s biggest, creepiest problem is that nothing lies behind them. Understandably the hardest physical feature to digitise, De Niro’s gaze is stuck with this faintly nightmarish, Polar Express-esque vacancy and while it distracts at first, the surrounding film is so vastly impressive that I found myself otherwise immersed.
It’s not often that any director is afforded such a luxurious budget outside of franchise fare. This year, it has miraculously happened twice but while Quentin Tarantino’s overhyped and undercooked Once Upon a Time in Hollywood only teased at what a recreation of late 60s Los Angeles might look like with $90m to spare, Scorsese takes us far deeper. 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.
But regardless of how one chooses to consume the film, the performances will soar nonetheless. De Niro’s well-documented decline, from Oscar-winning lightning bolt to mostly hapless hired hand, has allowed many to lose sight of his abilities and to lose hope that he might reconnect with his former glorious self. It’s obviously fitting that a reunion with his longtime collaborator would do the trick and it’s a joy to see him cruising at the top of his game again, curbing his parodied excesses and effortlessly steering the film through decades. Pacino has suffered a similar crash, wasting himself in ill-fitting dirge, and while he does fall into some of his scenery-chewing old tricks here, it’s the best we have seen from him in years.
The film’s ace is a quietly electrifying Pesci, in his first role since 2010, an astounding reminder of his big screen presence with a character so dramatically distant from his previous Scorsese incarnations. He’s rational and professional, much like the film’s plot, which eschews the brash debauchery of Goodfellas or Casino for something far more grounded. There’s humour, plenty of it, but rather than watching men commit crimes to pay for extravagant luxuries, we see them do it for their family’s survival, or at least that’s how they might justify it.
And it’s in this introspection where the film gets really interesting. When a director returns to a genre they’re most associated with, it can often feel like a greatest hits montage. For much of its duration, The Irishman covers familiar ground but is slickly entertaining, if a little repetitive in the third hour. In the last 30 minutes, as the pace slows and the quips subside and the violence quells, we are suddenly made aware of the ultimate price of this lifestyle and of the crushing savagery of old age. It’s a finale of stifling bleakness, of the pathetic emptiness of crime and of men who mistake their priorities in life, the discovery arriving all too late. There’s an almost meta-maturity, as if Scorsese is also looking back on his own career, the film leaving us with a haunting reminder not to glamorise violent men and the wreckage they leave behind.