Decades in the making, Scorsese’s latest ruminates on the made men whose crimes forged the basis of some of his best films
Unlike the wildly energetic Goodfellas or Mean Streets, The Irishman is a slow, deliberate epic — one still stocked with the same cruel violence but methodically drained of any passion behind it. In one of Robert De Niro’s best performances in years, Frank treats the business of crime as just that throughout — a mundane series of affairs, even if those affairs are defined by horrific bloodshed as much as they are by dollar bills. This shift, though, creates an unnatural feeling of being unstuck in time — with each life-changing moment drained of their significance, they begin to blend together, and before Frank knows it, the higher powers who ordered such hits have joined their victims six feet under. Now, Frank himself — devoid of friends, family, or anyone at all — is not too far behind.
It’s fitting, then, that after decades of bouncing between studios who balked at the cost of adapting Frank Sheeran’s controversial and contested memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman would finally find a home at Netflix. Both director and distributor have had eyes fixed on both the past and the future. With Silence, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Hugo, Scorsese has toyed with the idea of lasting legacies and the media we choose to capture them with — be them film, faith, or finance. The three have remained intertwined throughout Scorsese’s career, as he’s battled an increasingly rigid and rigamarole studio system to create the expansive, immersive films that have defined an already legendary career. In its bid to break free of its origins as an shipping outpost for DVDs of archival cinema, Netflix has courted some of film’s biggest auteurs to forge a new future for film — and has of late sought to preserve its efforts through a lucrative partnership with The Criterion Collection. The Irishman, then, is a culmination of both Scorsese and Netflix’s efforts — it’s an old-school studio epic made on a technologically revolutionary scale. The Irishman implements the latest in de-aging technology for its lead actors to prevent any uncanny valley-evoking recasting, and is unencumbered by irrational demands over runtime or story elements that may be imposed on a film that’s as challenging on a viewer’s bladder as it is on their conceptions of morality.
Scorsese has been a director as criticized for his featured violence as he has been praised for it — so it’s hard not to see The Irishman’s critical view towards Frank’s dispassionate actions as a ruminative indictment of the triumvirate relationship between a director, his violent subject, and his captive/captivated audience. Frank discusses each of his horrific acts with rote, almost bored recollection–which often remains at odds with how Scorsese captures each killing with visceral, heart-stopping urgency. Provoked reactions range between the repulsed, humorous, and heartbreaking — as the victims also range from those who Frank couldn’t care less about to those he cares about most. There’s an ever-conscious responsibility Scorsese takes in documenting the violence onscreen — as he ratchets up Frank’s complicated relationship between himself and his victims. While it’s easy for Frank to remain detached at first, and by extension only see himself as a tool for higher-ups to exert their mob will, what becomes clear is just how much choice Frank has in being the one who pulls the trigger. While he may choose to do so every time, it’s just as clear that those who love Frank have just as much justification in cutting him out of their lives as a result. Frank’s culpability — and his increasingly feeble attempts at reducing it — are always on trial throughout The Irishman. And Scorsese, finding a harsh, undercutting truth in the frank depiction of Frank’s violence, reveals just how undeserving of glory such a man’s life really is.
With a package that contextualizes the epic journey of The Irishman through extensive documentation of its production history and the real-life figures that inspired the film’s creation, The Criterion Collection has issued yet another comprehensive release of a film by one of cinema’s most revered auteurs.
Criterion presents The Irishman in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and a 1080p transfer sourced from the original 4K-resolution master, itself a combination of digital footage and a 35mm negative. The transfer was supervised and approved by director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
Much like their release of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Criterion has outdone itself in creating a stellar transfer of a widely-available Netflix film now unencumbered by the individually-varied limitations of streaming bitrates. Rodrigo Prieto’s hybrid film/digital cinematography is the disc’s remarkable standout — from replicating period film stock to the much-discussed de-aging of the leads, all are presented in richly layered detail. Much can be written about how the hyper-detailed transfer captures each worn line in each of the actors’ faces — revealing the grueling toll such weary work takes on these men of crime.
Criterion presents The Irishman with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, mastered from the film’s original digital audio files. English SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film, but not the supplemental features (save one, noted below).
What stands out the most from The Irishman’s immersive Atmos sound mix is its extremely heightened foley work — from the contempt-laden click of a lighter after an admonishment not to smoke in a car to the percussion-like crack of each gunshot in the film’s many hit sequences, to one of the best sequences — the hesitant turn of a key in an car’s ignition, followed by silence…as the driver awaits either a fiery death or a peaceful drive home. They’re ASMR-like flourishes that speak to an exhaustive attention to detail towards everything in the film.
- Making “The Irishman:” An in-depth behind-the-scenes documentary newly-assembled by The Criterion Collection, featuring interviews by Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Paquin, Cannavalle, and many others of the cast and crew. Particular attention is paid to the meticulous recreation of the many time periods featured in the film, from production and costume design, to emulating period film stock, to re-creating businesses like Howard Johnson’s that are no longer extant.
- Table For Four — Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci: An edited roundtable of The Irishman’s director and lead actors, originally produced by Netflix. This fly-on-the-wall conversation is a real wonder–seeing each of these legends discuss their careers without the frills of any over-appreciating moderators or labored contextualization of their careers. The four men’s decades-spanning friendship is more than evident throughout.
- Gangsters’ Requiem: This video essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme examines The Irishman through the lens of Scorsese’s past filmography, positioning it as the culmination of the director’s formal fascinations and long-running themes. Of note, Nehme illustrates how The Irishman meta-textually relies on its audience’s knowledge and appreciation of Scorsese’s earlier work to build a deeper contrast between the glamorized fictional world of gangsters and the cold, harsh reality their world truly offers.
- Anatomy of a Scene: In this segment produced by the New York Times, Scorsese provides an audio commentary over a climactic party sequence where De Niro’s Sheeran is recognized for his Union work, only to come to a dramatic crossroads in his friendships with Pesci’s Buffalino and Pacino’s Hoffa.
- The Evolution of Digital De-Aging: In this segment produced by Netflix, Scorsese and VFX supervisor Pablo Helman break down the extensive digital effects required to de-age The Irishman’s leads — from the dramatic aging down to their forties to creating a realistic visual through-line to their current ages.
- Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa: Criterion presents two documented excerpts of the real-life figures played by De Niro and Pacino in The Irishman. Sheeran’s interview, filmed by I Heard You Paint Houses author Charles Brandt in 1999, features Sheeran discussing his friendship with Hoffa and things to consider when pulling off a hit. Hoffa’s segment is a 1963 documentary featuring speeches and testimonials by Hoffa with the Teamster’s Union by documentarian David Brinkley. [Note: Sheeran’s interview is presented with English subtitles.]
- Teaser and Trailer for The Irishman’s theatrical and streaming release.
- The Wages of Loyalty: An essay by poet and critic Geoffrey O’Brien, focusing on the increasingly ephemeral world of Sheeran’s gangsters–one seemingly devoid of choice and free will until the harsh sum of one’s worldly actions proves otherwise.
The Irishman is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
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