It was a big get, even for a company as big as Netflix. Martin Scorsese is one of the most lauded directors in cinema and has, save for a handful of television episodes, directed exclusively for the cinema. So what led him to abandon his primary creative home for the literal home of Netflix subscribers?
As with everything, it came down to money. The Irishman is a slow burn of a movie at 209 minutes (that’s just shy of three and a half hours). With a budget of $159 million, it’s both the longest and most expensive film Scorsese has ever made.
Before principal photography began, a few different companies worked out distribution deals to finance the movie, but as the budget grew, those companies balked and withdrew their funding. In this day of expensive blockbuster action films, a long, introspective film about the life and possible redemption of a mob hitman doesn’t fit the current studio model. Netflix swooped in and bought the film rights, agreeing to finance the film.
Movie theaters weren’t left completely out of the equation since there was a theatrical release, but the terms of that release caused controversy in the world of the big theater chains. A traditional release window puts a movie in the theater for at least few months before going to the home market. For The Irishman, Netflix held fast to four weeks (a week longer than they
conceded for Roma last November), with a theatrical release date of November 1st before coming to Netflix streaming on November 27th.
This rankled the major theater chains, which chose to sit out of the theatrical release in protest. And while Scorsese defended Netflix’s decision and acquiesced to the
realities of getting The Irishman made, he also lamented that people wouldn’t be able to have the communal experience of watching his movie in a theater:
There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem, though. We have to make the film. . . . Having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want, the tradeoff being it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take on this particular project.
The question is: Is the enjoyment of The Irishman hindered by relying almost solely on the home market? I’d argue no, and add that maybe it’s even aided by a more intimate viewing experience. The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, and follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who meets and starts working for mob boss Russell Bufalino. This eventually leads to an introduction to controversial Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, for whom he becomes chief bodyguard and close friend.
As with any Scorsese film, there are moments of mob violence, some beautiful, long single-take tracking shots, and a lot of dialogue-driven drama. By putting this all on our home screen instead of an expansive movie-theater screen, the presentation feels more personal. It’s easier to be drawn in.
And even at three and a half hours, there aren’t any points of lag in the story, which is a testament to Scorsese; his longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker; and an extraordinary cast, including Scorsese favorites Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and, for the first time, Al Pacino. All three actors deserve the accolades they have received, in particular Pesci as Russell Bufalino.
The 4K presentation is excellent and really shows off the fantastic CGI de-aging of the actors. The story takes place across six decades, and an incredible amount of attention was put into how De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino looked as time marched on. There were a few moments of digital effects that were less convincing and entered the uncanny valley (there was also some slow-motion blood splatter that looked suspect to me), but overall it was quite a technical achievement.
The 5.1 sound design is meticulous and subtle. Cars sounded authentic to the period, there were moments of bone crunching that made me squirm, and nothing distracted from the story, only added to it. There’s a gunshot towards the end of the film that perfectly captures the starkness and emptiness of the scene, and is in essence the culmination of where Frank has come as a character. Surrounds are primarily used for music and to fill the space with reverb for larger locations.
It will be interesting to see how The Irishman being a streaming release ripples across the industry, with such high-profile names as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci attached. The more our home theaters have improved over the years, the less the need for movie theaters. Yes, the communal experience Scorsese refers to is missing, but I’ve found that seeing a film with a bunch of people can detract from my own enjoyment. Getting a 4K presentation with excellent sound and no uncontrollable external distractions (plus the ability for bathroom or snack breaks without missing anything) is shifting the importance of viewing from the cinema to the home.