/ 28 January 2024

Scorsese, the king of nonfiction

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' 14th Annual Governors Awards
More direct: Filmmaker Martin Scorsese with Killers of the Flower Moon stars Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Killers of the Flower Moon — directed by Martin Scorsese, one of the great auteurs of our time — has been nominated for 10 Academy awards. If you’re still counting, that’s 101 Oscar nods in his 50-year career. Twenty of those have ended in a gold statuette.

There’s every reason Killers of the Flower Moon — a devastating, beautifully shot film — adds to that tally in Hollywood’s annual parade in March. But, for whatever success this individual film achieves, it says something more profound about the turn in Scorsese’s filmography.

Over the past decade, the octogenarian’s output has borrowed heavily from non-fiction texts and real-life legend. His focus has been on taking intricate, engrossing human stories to the big screen rather than inventing his own. 

But what has truly set this era apart, earning a special place in his oeuvre, is his deft ability to drive a compelling plot through the eyes of characters that are not just complex or antagonistic, but outright vile. 

Killers of the Flower Moon’s Ernest Burkhart — meek, greedy and unintelligent — is the epitome of the trend. 

The film is based on David Grann’s book of the same name. It tells the story of the Osage who, like most native American nations, were forced into reservations with poor agricultural potential and bereft of big game. In one of history’s most devilish ironies, that land turned out to be rich in oil; so rich that overnight Osage County, Oklahoma, became the richest per capita area on the planet.

What was a blessing quickly took the form of a curse as scores of Osage were knocked off in the 1920s; some clearly, gruesomely murdered, others wilting away with “wasting illness”. 

However, no bad spirits were at play in this — only William King Hale, Ernest’s uncle, who orchestrated the years-long plot to inherit his victims’ headrights.

Through Ernest, our protagonist, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, we have a first-person view of the casual disregard Hale and his accomplices had for native American life.

It was a risky directorial choice. Ernest is not a particularly likeable character even before he begins to slowly poison his wife. Asking him to hold our attention for three-and-half hours is extraordinarily ambitious.

The book’s sub-heading is The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI and Scorsese has since revealed that DiCaprio was slated to play the heroic agent who swoops into town and unravels the plot, earning the newly established bureau nationwide fame in the process.

He ultimately abandoned the idea and eschewed the FBI angle almost entirely, putting his leading man behind the foolish grin of Ernest instead. The artistic project that results is better for it. We are spared any murder mystery tropes and instead are given a gripping spectacle, free of cliché.

Watching Ernest pulled between his rapacity and his love for his wife Molly is an anguishing experience. We live through his pain and uncertainty. And yet at no point are we asked to feel sorry for him or hope he can outrun his fate. 

Ernest’s weakness also serves to accentuate Molly’s strength; a remarkable woman asked to endure unthinkable pain, intensely captured by Lily Gladstone.

Scorsese trusts the audience enough to grapple with these complex dynamics, a show of faith rarely gifted to the viewer.

Of course, his treatment of his protagonist has never been traditional. Discussing Goodfellas, he has insisted that it is the mob world that is the “main character”, not Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. Liotta, he says, is more akin to Virgil, Dante’s guide through the infernal underworld.

In his villains we have seen tectonic forces around which the rest of the film revolves, most notably his mid-2000s projects Gangs of New York and The Departed, which gave us the deranged magnetism of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Butcher and Jack Nicholson’s Costello, respectively.

Even with that history, all considered, shooting through the viewpoint of not just a bad man, but a real-life bad man, rightly condemned by history, is another scale of ambition. We see it in The Irishman, where Robert De Niro portrays Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman who claims to have killed at least 25 people.

But it is The Wolf of Wall Street that most confounds the literal mind. We follow Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who got obscenely wealthy through insider trading and ripping off investors, a man with a reprehensible rap sheet. The film spares us none of his debauchery, smothering us with his and his firm’s sometimes sickening lifestyle. It builds to a comeuppance that never arrives, even after he is caught. Rich people don’t suffer long in jail.

It’s an ending that has led many critics to chastise the film for glorifying drug use, Wall Street bros and the hurling of people with dwarfism at dartboards.

Surely Scorsese has earned a deeper interpretation of his work? We can argue that The Wolf of Wall Street is best seen as a vicarious joyride in the cocaine-stained seats of Belfort’s Lamborghini. We live his life uncensored for three hours. In the end, we’re given no easy escape route, no plausible reason why we wouldn’t want that lifestyle for ourselves.

We have no choice but to decide for ourselves whether greed is good. We’re asked to take a look at ourselves, re-evaluating our own sensibilities. That is the mission of all good cinema.