Martin Scorsese’s cinematic mastery is on full display in this sweeping crime saga, which serves as an elegiac summation of his six-decade career. Left behind by the world, former hit man and union truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) looks back from a nursing home on his life’s journey through the ranks of organized crime: from his involvement with Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his association with Teamsters union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) to the rift that forced him to choose between the two. An intimate story of loyalty and betrayal writ large across the epic canvas of mid-twentieth-century American history, The Irishman (based on the real-life Sheeran’s confessions, as told to writer Charles Brandt for the book I Heard You Paint Houses) is a uniquely reflective late-career triumph that balances its director’s virtuoso set pieces with a profoundly personal rumination on aging, mortality, and the decisions and regrets that shape a life.
Continuing their deal with Netflix, The Criterion Collection presents Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on Blu-ray, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The 1080p/24hz digital encode comes from a 4K master sourced from a mix of the original 35mm negative and digital files.
The presentation is fine overall though manages to be the more underwhelming (if slightly) of the Netflix films so far. In general the picture is very clean and sharp, rendering fine details incredibly well. The notes state that digital cameras were used where de-aging effects were applied, but even then there is a nice photographic look to the image most of the time. The film’s look differs depending on the timeline (and this is covered in more detail in the supplements), the aim being to capture the look of different film stocks and development techniques that felt specific to a period, and this leads to incredibly vibrant colours in some sequences and muted, desaturated colours in others. No matter the era, though, black levels always look excellent and there are no issues with crushing.
Things are a bit iffy around the de-aging effects. I won’t get much into the effects, as they’ve been written about ad nauseum, other than to say I had no issue with them, but similar to how they look in the Netflix presentation there can be a waxiness around facial features when the effects are being applied. It's not always noticeable, but when it is it stands out.
That particular "issue" is obviously inherent to the source materials, though, and nothing to do with the encode or anything of that nature, though it's the encode that did end up underwhelming me, even if its ever-so-slightly. The picture is generally clean and nothing severe really sticks out, yet there are a handful of sequences look a little noisy, notably in darker areas. To be fair, you have to be looking for these instances, but they are there from time to time.
Like the other Netflix and Amazon titles so far, comparing this to the Netflix stream is more than likely a fool’s errand because there are a lot of factors to take into account for the streaming presentation, starting with the original compressed source files and then limitations of bandwidth and the software that ultimately renders the image, and that’s before even getting into the 4K presentation. I found motion and that to be better here, and at times, when comparing to the high-def stream on Netflix, I thought some textures—like a leather jacket De Niro wears early on—looked better here as well. But then looking at the 4K presentation on Netflix, that version shows improvements in detail along with better colours and black levels. I still think motion is better on this Blu-ray (and I'm sure that is debatable), but in other areas the 4K streaming version still looks pretty damn good. There’s no point really getting into it, but it is a shame we’re not getting a 4K disc for the film.
At any rate, the final image still looks pretty solid and despite any reservations I had I'm still happy with it (and happy to be getting the film on video), yet I guess I was just hoping for a more obvious and clear upgrade over the streamable version.
The clear upgrade over the Netflix version is getting a Dolby Atmos soundtrack here when the Netflix version only delivers a 5.1 surround version (at least on the Amazon Fire that’s all I can get). I only have a 5.1.2 set-up (meaning I am missing the two rear Atmos speakers and 2 extra surround speakers) but even then I was impressed with the mix here. It never reaches the levels of Roma, which is so far my demo disc for the audio format, but the mix creates a very nice 3D sound field. Dialogue is focused primarily to the fronts, panning between the three front speakers (sounding sharp and crisp with incredible range) but the music and some of the background effects fill in the rest of the space nicely with decent height, like the sound of traffic early on in the film. It’s the music in the film that end ups being the real stand-out, as expected with a Scorsese film. On the whole it's not all that showy, but it’s still a very effective mix.
Criterion has thankfully made this a two-disc set, giving the film the entirety of the first disc. All supplemental material can be found on the second disc. The second disc, like the first one, is dual-layer, so this led me to assume there would actually be a lot of content to be found, but it barely runs over a couple of hours in the end.
Most of the material was shot by Netflix and then put together by Criterion for this edition, starting off with a 36-minute making-of documentary, featuring Scorsese, actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Katherine Narducci, casting director Ellen Lewis, producers Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Irwin Winkler, and others. It’s pretty by the numbers for what it is, touching on how the book was passed around and how the project gestated for years and years before finally filming. It also touches on the casting process, the de-aging effects, and getting the right look, which includes replicating the look of certain film stocks and getting all the tiny details just right, like finding a hotel that still had all the charms of an actual Howard Johnson (and I knew that one diner was the same one used in Goodfellas, which is confirmed here). For what it is it does a decent job in chronicling the long road for the film to make it to the screen (in a very limited capacity before appearing on Netflix) but it’s pretty standard fair.
Criterion also includes a 19-minute discussion between Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the four sitting around a table (used in the film I believe) to discuss the film. At first I thought this would be the same as the In Conversation featurette that is available on Netflix, and while this uses a lot of the same material, it’s a different edit with some alternate material as well (and it runs a few minutes shorter). Nothing mind-blowing is said but it is a bit of blast to see the four just talk about the film and the experience of them all working together for what is probably one last time. It’s also fun listening to them recall what they were expecting from one another, like how Pesci was expecting Pacino to really go off the rails, as he can do, in a few scenes (“blowup” as Pesci puts it) and planning how he was going to work around that. There’s also some discussion around working with the de-aging technology.
Expanding on that latter topic is The Evolution of Digital De-Aging, a short 13-minute featurette created by Netflix. Though not all that long I will say it does a decent job getting into how the technology works (starting with these special cameras that also get mentioned a lot in the previous two supplements) and then how they had to properly capture a variety of expressions from the actors to make sure they could replicate their performances as exact as they could. Though I could look past a lot of them there are issues around the effects in the end product, yet despite that I still found it a fascinating look into not only the technology but the art that went behind it.
Filling in the academic angle is a new 21-minute video essay by Farran Smith Nehme called Gangster’s Requiem, which looks at how Scorsese’s style has developed through the years and how all of it ends up applying to this film, usually through referencing some of his other films and deconstructing a handful of sequences. Criterion also includes a 5-minute episode from a New York Times online series, Anatomy of a Scene, which features Scorsese talking over the Frank Sheeran appreciation night sequence, explaining the decisions behind the framing and general flow of the sequence (he also went out of his way to get Harvey Keitel and Pacino in a shot together just because they had never been in a scene together before).
A nice touch, though, is the addition of archival footage featuring Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa and apparently used as references for the film. Sheeran’s footage (running 6-minutes) comes from recordings author Charles Brandt made for his novel, “I Heard You Paint Houses.” The excerpts showcase Sheeran talking about his alleged involvement in the Hoffa disappearance along with his general methodology behind hits (or “painting houses”). He also shows off his watch (from Hoffa) and his ring (from Russell Bufalino).
The footage of Hoffa comes from 17-minutes’ worth of material from an episode of NBC’s David Brinkley’s Journal that focused on Hoffa. The footage of Hoffa was clearly replicated for a few sequences in the film (his office is recreated exactly as it is in this footage) and we get to see him give part of a speech and woo his way through the crowds. The episode gets into his popularity amongst workers as well as his legal issues, and also talks a little bit about his relationship with Tony “Pro.” Brinkley even interviews Hoffa about his time in front of the Senate Committee and asks him about what he does with his wealth. This is an especially solid inclusion for the release.
The disc then closes with a teaser trailer and theatrical trailer.
Criterion also includes a booklet (which features the title I Heard You Paint Houses) featuring an essay on the film by Geoffrey O’Brien. Criterion also packages the two discs in a very sturdy digipak, featuring artwork by Gregory Manchess. It’s a handsome looking package, staying in line with the previous Netflix titles Criterion has released.
In all the material is decent, but I guess I was expecting more for such a big title, with maybe more new material from Criterion, and I’m especially surprised there wasn’t anything about the questionable details behind Sheeran’s account of what happened to Hoffa, or anything else he confessed to.
The presentation may not offer the clear upgrade over streaming one would hope and the special features leave room for improvement, but it’s still a handsome looking edition that Scorsese fans will be happy to snatch up.