Dir: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, and Stephen Graham. 15 cert, 208 mins

The Irishman feels as if it should exist in the past tense. It’s like a faded memory or a story repeated so often, the details have started to blur. Did Netflix know, when it handed over an eye-watering $150m to fund Martin Scorsese’s passion project, that it would get something this introspective in return? It’s anyone’s guess, but that’s the majesty of The Irishman, a late-career return by the director to the mobster genre he helped define. It may not have the instant electricity of Goodfellas, or even Casino, but it’s a different creature at heart. The effects are more long term. Hours (or even days) after the credits have rolled, a muted sense of sorrow still lingers.

Scorsese took his inspiration from the late-life confessions of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, which detailed his past career as a hitman. Lawyer Charles Brandt recorded them in his 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses. Sheeran (Robert De Niro) was a Philadelphia truck driver who fell under the influence of two prominent mafiosos, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). As the film implies, his time fighting in Italy in the Second World War had seen his moral compass replaced with an unwavering commitment to following orders. It made him an ideal choice to do the mob’s dirty work. Eventually, he ended up working for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of America’s most powerful union, with deep ties to the nation’s criminal organisations.

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Scorsese’s signature camerawork goes down like a glass of fine whisky, as smooth and as elegant as you’d expect. The violence arrives in short, sharp shocks. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay even nails the mobster patter, with arguments about fish, tardiness, and business shorts that feel destined to one day be quoted to death (à la “funny like I’m a clown, I amuse you?”). In that sense, it does feel like a throwback to the director’s golden age, especially with the reunion of two of his greatest collaborators, De Niro and Pesci. And though it may be the first time he’s worked with Pacino, the actor’s still a titan of the genre.

De Niro and Pacino haven’t exactly been chasing prestige projects recently, while Pesci has been largely retired for the past decade. But here, all three of them are recharged. These are stunning performances. De Niro delicately maps the death of Sheeran’s conscience. His shifts in mood are barely perceptible – above all, he’s the quiet, sturdy right-hand man – but you feel by the end that something profound has changed within him. Pacino, meanwhile, bristles with energy and says “c***sucker” more than any man in history. But his delirious charisma finally feels grounded again, no longer edging into self-parody. And, despite the brouhaha over the film’s use of CGI to de-age its leads (the reason for its inflated budget), it’s much less distracting than you’d think. The bigger problem, in fact, is the effect of the unnaturally bright blue contacts De Niro wears in order to emphasise Sheeran’s Celtic heritage.

Pesci feels the most revelatory here, however. His entire career of playing vulgar, volatile men has been flipped on its head; Russell is at his most powerful when he doesn’t say a word. A knowing look can change the entire course of a man’s life. The Irishman’s women, too, communicate mostly through glances. Though it certainly won’t temper claims that Scorsese sidelines his female characters, the choice here is deliberate. They are the silent observers of this decay. They are the furies, watching and judging from afar. It’s a film that’s told from an entirely masculine viewpoint, but one that isn’t ignorant of where it intersects with a feminine one.

As much as The Irishman lives in the shadows of Scorsese’s past, it’s slower and more solemn than what’s come before. A tracking shot no longer takes us through the backdoor of the bustling Copacabana, but through the stark white corridors of a nursing home, where we first meet Sheeran. In one flashback, we see him force Italian soldiers to dig their own graves before he executes them. In a way, these gangsters carve the same fate for themselves. They don’t always die early. Some end up in prison, others just see their existence crumble around them. But The Irishman reminds us, in a way starker than any of Scorsese’s previous work, that retribution is inevitable.

The Irishman is released in UK cinemas on 8 November and on Netflix from 27 November

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