Review: Scorsese's 'The Irishman' is mature and melancholy

Al Pacino, center left, and Robert De Niro, center right, star in "The Irishman." 

I am so thankful that FLIX Brewhouse Madison (along with New Vision Fitchburg 18) opted to screen the new Martin Scorsese film “The Irishman” before it premiered on Netflix. A lot of theater chains, including Marcus and AMC, refused because Netflix wouldn’t give them exclusive rights to screen the film for several weeks before it premiered on Netflix. (FLIX and New Vision got a five-day window, and the film plays Monday and Tuesday before premiering Wednesday on Netflix.)

Because I don’t know if I would have been able to watch the 209-minute movie in one sitting otherwise. My guess is that most people will watch it the way we watch almost everything on Netflix — in stops and starts, dribs and drabs, with repeated detours to check our phones. 

But it’s a terrific film that benefits from a viewer’s undivided attention, because it has a cumulative power that builds over its long running time. That’s not to say that it shouldn't play on Netflix. Odds are Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to make the movie without the streaming site’s deep pockets.

“The Irishman” stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a Philadelphia truck driver who rose within the ranks to become Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man, as well as being a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. We first meet Sheeran in a long tracking shot (which seems like Scorsese commenting wryly on his penchant for such shots in his other gangster movies) which finds him as an old man in a nursing home, alone and forgotten.

Sheeran tells the story of his life, which spans several decades and many killings. It’s a life that ends up revolving around two key friendships. One is with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, in his first role in a decade) who draws him into the criminal underworld as a sort of twisted mentor. The other is with Hoffa (Al Pacino), who sees Sheeran as more of a confidant and an equal. (There’s a very funny and oddly sweet scene where the two tough guys get into their pajamas and talk before bed, a scene that seems like a call back to the great French crime movie “Touchez Pas au Grisbi.”)

As the mob gets its hooks deeper and deeper into the Teamsters, and Hoffa rebels against the mob’s demands (which includes unlimited payments from the workers’ pension fund), Sheeran finds himself caught between the two friendships. Those who know what happened to Hoffa in real life can predict where this will end, but Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillan tell a dense, layered and fast-moving story.

For the first three hours or so, “The Irishman” is a first-rate but familiar sort of Scorsese gangster movie, a symphony of mob hits, nightclub banter and rich supporting performances. Anna Paquin is particularly striking in a near-silent role as Sheeran’s daughter.

But then in its last half-hour, the film becomes something sadder. Sheeran, that old man who survived when so many around him didn’t, who followed orders without question, has to live with what he’s done. It’s that tragic coda that elevates “Irishman” into something different and special for Scorsese, and puts it on a level with “Casino” and “Goodfellas” for me.

Also on streaming: Thanksgiving means turkey, football and, of course, bad movies. It’s been an annual tradition that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” books a “Turkey Day” marathon on Thanksgiving, streaming six classic episodes of the series (along with new introductions) at shoutfactorytv.com.

With fans waiting to hear if Netflix will bring the show back for another season or not, it’s a welcome holiday tradition. Shout Factory has also released a DVD/Blu-ray boxed set of the most recent Netflix season this week, and launched a new 24-hour Twitch channel for round-the-clock cheesy movie viewing.

The brilliant but irreverent master sleuth is a trope that knows no borders. France’s version is “Balthazar,” a new crime drama that premieres its first season Monday on Acorn. Tomer Sisley plays Raphael Balthazar, a Parisian forensic pathologist who “speaks” for the dead and solves seemingly unsolvable crimes.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.