'The Irishman': What the Critics Are Saying

World Premiere of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman - Still 2 - Publicity-H 2019

In the first reviews, critics are using the adjectives "terrific," "encyclopedic" and "titanic" to describe Martin Scorsese's latest mob epic.

The first reviews have arrived for Martin Scorsese's crime drama The Irishman, which stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. 

The film, written by Steven Zaillian from a book by Charles Brandt, follows a labor union leader and mob hitman who recalls his involvement in the 1982 murder of fellow mob boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rounding out the cast are Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale. 

Since both De Niro and Pacino appear at different ages — spanning decades — their looks were achieved with a combination of VFX and makeup. The digital de-aging looks were accomplished by LucasFilm's Industrial Light & Magic.

For The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney calls the film a "beautifully crafted piece of deluxe cinema" despite its "self-indulgent" running time of three and a half hours. He writes that the drama is anchored by "three tremendously effective contrapuntal performances," noting that De Niro gave a nuanced interpretation of Frank Sheeran, the un-flashy middleman character. "It’s when his hardened, get-the-job-done grimace dissolves to hint at the conflicts within the WWII veteran-turned-mob heavy that Frank’s calloused humanity is revealed," writes the critic. He goes on to say that Pacino is "in invigoratingly fine form as pugnacious labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa," and Pesci, having emerged from retirement, "gives a superbly measured performance as a don whose quiet thoughtfulness and composure don’t soften his ruthlessness."

Referencing the de-aging visual effects, which allow De Niro, Pacino and Pesci to play characters 20 and 30 years younger than them, Rooney says the combination of VFX and makeup is mildly distracting upon initial impact, but fairly seamless overall. Concluding his review, Rooney says that the movie works best when the conflict is focused on the three central characters, as its attempts to build in social context about the Kennedy and Nixon years provide little in the way of texture. 

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson calls out the "arresting" final act of the film, noting that Scorsese "captures the smallness and loneliness of life, its pathetic flattening out — time, in some senses but not all, eventually erodes away all of our context." The critic notes that the DNA of the movie will be familiar to those who know the story of Sheeran, or those accustomed to the director's past work. He likens the dark material to that of Goodfellas or Casino. In recognizing the film's enormous budget — $160 million — Lawson writes that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, along with production designer Bob Shaw, were able to stage the film with "sumptuous period tailoring."

In Esquire, critic Chris Nashawaty raves about how at 76 years old, Scorsese still has "it," proving so with his latest iteration on the gangster film: "Spanning 50 years and clocking in at a bladder-busting 209 minutes, it’s nothing short of an encyclopedic history of American crime in the second half of the 20th century," Nashawaty writes. Still, he notes that the epic scope has its downsides, including that many supporting players come and go without leaving much of an impression; the Goodfellas-like narration is also heavy on exposition.

Still, Nashawaty is dazzled by the film's performances, bolstered by De Niro ("his face is a relief map of regret"), Pacino ("grabs you by the throat") and Pesci ("his most subtle, soft-spoken, and effective turn since Raging Bull"). Ultimately, Nashawaty writes, "The Irishman isn’t a masterpiece. But it doesn’t miss by much."

The New York Post's Johnny Oleksinski had fun with the film's three-and-a-half-hour runtime, writing at the top of his review, "Well, chug a 5-hour Energy, because the terrific “Irishman” deserves your full, un-fatigued attention." Oleksinski is a little less enthusiastic about the movie's controversial de-aging process, which he calls "cool, if occasionally creepy," particularly pointing out that De Niro resembles Gumby while playing someone in in his mid-30s.

However, Oleksinski is charmed by the film's performances and filmmaking, noting that Pesci is "more tender and introspective than usual" in his latest performance, and first in many years. Overall, "Scorsese is at the top of his game here. His film is never boring, and it explores some unexpectedly deep themes for mafiosos," the critic writes.

In The Daily Beast, Nick Schager calls the film an "epic, titanic triumph," but goes on to say that the visual effects do slip into video game-ish "uncanny valley" territory at certain points. "For the most part — especially once the protagonists move into middle age and beyond — one quickly acclimates to Scorsese’s computerized makeovers," writes the critic. He says that Pacino stands "tallest" among the performances, noting that the actor hasn't been this magnetic in quite some time. Like other critics, Schager mentions Scorsese's other films Goodfellas and Casino, adding in The Godfather, as examples of career-defining movies from these actors, who have now come together "for one last hurrah," and to tackle a boldly themed subject matter that Scorsese knows well. Summing up his review, Schager labels Scorsese a "timeless legend," having yet again proven himself.

In The New York Times, critic A.O. Scott writes that unlike Scorsese's past mobster movies, the characters here are grand as well as petty, human figures rather than heroes and antiheroes: "This is Scorsese’s least sentimental picture of mob life, and for that reason his most poignant," he writes. Scott's take on the de-aging technology utilized in the film is that "the effect takes some getting used to" but ultimately "doesn’t take you out of the picture" any more than makeup or prosthetics might.

While positive about a lot of the film's characteristics, the critic particularly praises Pesci, whom he calls a "revelation." Some of the actor's old, macho affect has disappeared, to the performance's benefit, Scott argues: "When he and De Niro are onscreen together, you believe in the power of art," he writes.

Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri focused on the visual highlight for The Irishman, Robert De Niro’s de-aged visage. The critic notes it as “incredibly impressive” for a film that has de-aged characters for a chunk of the storyline, adding it is not just “a technological accomplishment” but a “strategic stroke of brilliance.” Still, Ebiri says the actors have a sheen, especially De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, and de-aging can also only go so far visually. De Niro is still in his 70s and the quick movements and mannerisms audiences remember isn't quite there. Ebiri shares that the film overall finds a way to use "this very mortal limitation to its artistic advantage" by turning De Niro's "age and slowness into an existential ethos." Though the critic calls the film's effects "far from perfect," they add "they actually help give the movie its soul."

The Guardian's Benjamin Lee takes the approach that The Irishman's quality is in part due to its landing at Netflix, which shouldered the film's $150 million budget. "The Irishman…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," he writes. "Because, quite simply, the film as it is would never have survived the modern studio system without streaming assistance."

That said, all the money that went to de-aging De Niro, Lee writes, didn't create a natural look — rather, the effect creates "faintly nightmarish, Polar Express-esque vacancy" in De Niro's eyes. Still, Lee praises the "transporting" production design, the performances and most of all the self-awareness of the film. "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."