Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Irishman’ on Netflix, Martin Scorsese’s Late-Career Masterpiece

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman finally arrives to Netflix’s streaming service after oodles of hype stirred up by festival premieres, early reviews and a limited theatrical release. That’s a long way of saying that most of us can FINALLY watch a masterpiece of classical moviemaking, a gangster epic that instantly stands among the best of its genre, the year and maybe the decade. It’s what it is: the greats taking a twilight victory lap together, likely for the last time.

The Gist: This is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). It’s told in three narrative threads that knot up after about three hours. We first meet Sheeran in roughly 2003 as a withered old man, bound to a wheelchair, talking right at us. He begins at the beginning, about 1950, when he’s twentysomething, or maybe 30, and first meets Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran heists some beef for Bufalino, which is enough to show the guy that he can do some other business for him, some real dirty business if he so needs it, and he so needs it. Two-and-a-half-ish decades later, Sheeran and Bufalino are old pals on a leisurely car trip in a black Lincoln to the midwest, with their wives in the backseat, and soon, although maybe not too soon, it becomes evident that it’s late July, 1975. Yes. That’s when you-know-what happened. You know — what.

From here, I’ll speak in generalities, because what happens is known by everyone of a certain age, and then some, and because the inevitable what that we know is going to happen isn’t nearly as important as the details of the situations and characters. I will say that Sheeran shows a proclivity for sadistic displays of violence, including once when a shopkeep laid a hand on his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina), who was maybe about 10, give or take, and Sheeran pushes the shopkeep through some glass doors and curbstomps his hand until it’s a mangled wad of bone splinters and goo. The girl never looks at her father the same again, and I mean never, because she’s depicted as an adult (Anna Paquin) watching the news of a nasty, nasty gang murder, and just knows her old man did it, that her old man is capable of killing a man out in the open in a restaurant in front of his children and get away with it and live with it.

Oh — it’s worth mentioning that Peggy always thought Bufalino was creepy, but she took a shine to the other guy her old man worked for, and his name was Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Yes. What? You know. Hoffa was the amazingly, stupidly powerful head of the Teamsters, and he was tangled in some shit, and I mean really tangled in it. You can’t be palling around with Bufalino and not have a lot of stuff on your hands and shoes. There’s a big gala sequence that’s late in the film but in the middle of Sheeran’s life in which adult Peggy dances with Hoffa while Sheeran and Bufalino talk about you-know-what, building suspense until the what you know is coming comes.

Robert De Niro in The Irishman
Photo: Netflix

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Only the best: The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and of course Goodfellas. But it’s also very much its own thing, a poignant reflecting, something of that sort, upon old men who dedicated their lives to attaining wealth and power, and one old hitman who did their dirtiest work, and they all in the end ended up somewhere, somewhere quite hot: Nomine et fili spiritus sancti. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Performance Worth Watching: Has De Niro ever been this strong or nuanced? He pilots a character who’s so quick to brutality but who’s also coursing with… something? Something else? It’s something buried beneath 400 days of combat in World War II (the average soldier endured 100) and the expectations of stoic masculinity in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which means it’s deep, deep in there somewhere. Who can explain the sociopathy of a killer? How we’re repulsed by his brutality, but empathize with his need for his daughter’s love?

What’s his inner conflict? There’s a coal of a once-raging fire in there, definitely, in the megalayers De Niro lays down, and it’s not so easy to define. Regret? Doubt? Grief? Guilt? No, no, no, not quite. Sort of. What do you call all of that, and then some? I don’t know either. It’s better that we don’t, because De Niro tickles the divine mystery of the human creature, the human condition, the great human contradictions. Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Godfather: Part II, The Irishman.

Memorable Dialogue: A classic exchange between Bufalino and Sheeran:
“Tell him, ‘It’s what it is.’”
“It’s what it is?”
“It’s what it is.”

Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: The Irishman is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, writer Charles Brandt’s biography of the real-life Sheeran. The book is named after what ends up on the walls when a guy with a revolver you knows another guy. Right. That. One of the film’s great joys is its artfully dodgy, circular gangsterspeak, where men talk around the thing they know they’re talking about and use vague language that’s actually very specific, as if there are bugs and wires in the trees and walls and lamps and shoes and armpits and teapots. It’s a casually paranoid way of life for these guys; it’s second nature for them to talk about nothing even though it’s actually very much something. Painting houses, you know? It’s just painting houses.

Is there something funny about this? I don’t know. Am I calling the movie funny? Funny-ha-ha, like a clown, funny? What’s so funny about killing a man? Well, nothing. Is it funny that Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian freeze-frame introductions of new characters with subtitles revealing the year and the brutal manner of their deaths? People will laugh at that, in spite of themselves, perhaps out of a feeling of superiority, for not being involved in a business whose cultural currency is murder.

There’s so much to cover here. The Irishman is 210 utterly captivating minutes long, and all of them are earned, worthy, meaningful. It covers WWII, the Kennedy assassination, the Nixon presidency; it features supporting turns by Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Welker White; it bookends with In the Still of the Night by the Five Satins, because Scorsese movies without luminous and vibrant music are someone else’s movies.

You want movies rich with character? Here’s a movie rich with character. Known for going big and showy, Pesci is controlled, gently menacing. Known for going big and showy, Pacino goes big and showy, but no so big and showy that we don’t believe he’s Jimmy Hoffa. Much has been made about Scorsese’s use of “anti-aging” CGI to make old guys look young and vice-versa, which you’ll notice for a few moments then never care about again, because the direction, writing and performances are so rich, so brilliantly alive.

Thematically, well, Scorsese’s 76 now, De Niro’s 76, Pesci’s 76, Pacino’s 79. Does that say it all? Reflections on mortality and choice and all that stuff? Much has also been made of the minimal dialogue spoken by Paquin, playing the film’s most humane character; she speaks its most important and powerful words, and we should relish the irony that she cuts to the heart of its meaning while the men spew thousands of words and softshoe around it and play games, games of life and death, and never really get it.

Our Call: STREAM IT. I’ll be frank: There was a 0.02 percent chance Scorsese would craft a dud — he’s a master exploring not just familiar territory, but a variation on a theme. A fresh, insightful invigoration of a theme. Pause The Irishman if you must, but challenge yourself not to, and welcome the opportunity to be enthralled by a modern classic.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.

Stream The Irishman on Netflix

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