The Irishman hits Netflix today, meaning every subscriber in the world now has the ability to witness filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s masterful crime epic. At three hours and twenty-nine minutes in length, however, you may be planning to watch The Irishman in chunks. And yes, while that is a positively epic running time, it’s also perfectly befitting the movie it encompasses and actually affects the thematic impact of the film’s emotional final act. Having seen The Irishman I’m here to implore you: the best way to watch this movie is to watch it in one long, uninterrupted sitting.
The “why” with regards to watching The Irishman all at once versus in smaller chunks is inherently tied to the “what.” The film chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran, a real-life individual whose career in organized crime was detailed in the Charles Brandt book I Heard You Paint Houses. The movie tracks Sheeran’s entire adult life as he first meets and begins doing work here and there for mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), escalating to “wet work” that entails murdering individuals on orders. Eventually, Sheeran becomes something of a right-hand man for powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), although their partnership meets a fateful end that takes a toll on all involved.
Scorsese’s film—which was scripted by Oscar-winning Schindler’s List and The Night Of writer Steven Zaillian—chronicles these events in compelling detail, and the narrative really hums along. This is a three-and-a-half-hour movie that doesn’t feel like a three-and-a-half-hour movie. It’s engaging, constantly compelling, and actually quite funny! But while you may find yourself thinking throughout the first two thirds, “Yeah this is pretty good. Interesting. Good performances. Pretty good,” when the third act kicks in, suddenly the thematic weight of the entire piece comes into view, and the experiences you’ve just borne witness to coalesce into powerful feelings of regret and sorrow and reflection.
Indeed, Scorsese’s masterful construction of The Irishman’s narrative hinges on the fact that you’ve just lived Frank Sheeran’s life right alongside him for three hours. The movie is so long because it actually attempts to capture the entirety of a man’s adult life, and it succeeds wildly. Much has been made of the cutting-edge digital de-aging affects that allow De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play much younger versions of themselves in the earlier portions of the film. This wasn’t merely a gimmick intended to look neat. Literally watching these characters age and get older over the course of the film ties directly into the movie’s themes of mortality, so that by the time you get to the end and these characters are in wheelchairs and noticeably, shockingly old, and you are instantly—constantly—reminded of their impending death. And of all the lives they stole along the way. And the cost and toll that took on their souls.
And where did they end up? Where did a life of being big and tough and powerful take them? To a wheelchair, entirely dependent on the care of others to perform basic human functions.
The visual storytelling of The Irishman is astounding, but if you’re breaking the story up into 30-, 45-, or 60-minute chunks spread across days, you’re unable to fully feel the weight of the themes that Scorsese is wrestling with. You’re watching the plot unfold, sure, but great films are made up of much more than plot, and in the hands of a master filmmaker like Scorsese, every shot composition, every editing choice, and the exact pacing and length of the film is purposeful. They’re all pieces of a whole, and in order to really, fully, completely experience The Irishman, you need to witness it as intended: as a piece of cinema, experienced in a single sitting.