A movie’s central character needn’t be someone we admire, but he should probably be someone we’re drawn to, someone we vibe with in sympathetic fascination, who we feel we know and understand even as he crosses over to the dark side. Few movies have lived out that dynamic more cathartically than the underworld dramas of Martin Scorsese.
“Mean Streets,” the tale of low-rung Little Italy mobsters that Scorsese made 50 years ago (I think it’s still his greatest film), is about Harvey Keitel’s ladder-climbing numbers runner, but the most explosive character is Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy, a self-destructive firecracker who doesn’t “give two shits about you, or nobody else,” a quality that would make him repellent if he weren’t so hypnotic. In “Taxi Driver,” De Niro’s Travis Bickle is a loner who can’t connect, but he connects with the audience in every frame. “GoodFellas” inserts us into the hungry soul of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, who craves being a gangster so much that he, along with the audience, spends the entire movie discovering how brutal the stakes are. De Niro’s “Ace” Rothstein in “Casino” is a Vegas power player whose broken marriage to Sharon Stone’s Ginger leaves us desolate, gutted, on the rocks. And in “The Irishman,” De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is a Mob soldier who is given the staggering order to execute Jimmy Hoffa, the man to whom he’s been a loyal bodyguard for years.
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But then there’s Ernest Burkhart, the lunkish hick Leonardo DiCaprio plays in Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Ernest, a veteran of World War I, shows up at the door of his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), saying that he loves money. He’s soon involved in all sorts of dirty business: stealing, arranging the murders of innocents, keeping his downcast grimace of a mouth shut in order to cover up a vast criminal conspiracy. Ernest’s actions, in their way, are Mob-like, yet Ernest isn’t presented as a violent man. He’s closer to a moral-idiot manchild who will do whatever his boss uncle tells him to do, because that’s the limits of his thinking.
Beneath his terrible actions, though, who is Ernest Burkhart? As we watch “Killers of the Flower Moon,” what is it in him we’re being asked to identify with? What’s his desire, his journey, his relationship to the darkness?
I’ve seen the film twice, and I’m still trying to suss that one out.
DiCaprio, an actor of skillful precision, makes Ernest, on the surface, a genial yokel who lacks the imagination to think for himself. Early on, De Niro’s King Hale asks Ernest if he likes “red” (i.e., Native American women), and Ernest says sure, he likes all women. King wants to set Ernest up with Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), one of several sisters in the Osage Nation who are sitting on the headrights of powerful oil-rich land. Ernest is a step ahead of him; he’s been chauffeuring Mollie around and flirting with her. So when the two get married, is it part of an unconscionable scheme? Or do they really love each other? The movie says both, but that’s a tricky one to wrap your head around, especially when Ernest starts participating, with the nonchalance of a handyman, in the brutal murder of Mollie’s sisters.
The rationale — or, rather, the explanation — for all the homicide, apart from the naked greed that motivates it, is that the men committing the murders are racists. They don’t regard the Osage as full human beings; thus they can kill them as if they were swatting flies. Organized racial murder has often conformed to this pattern (think of the Holocaust), but Ernest, the hayseed who’s just following orders, has a shifting, eccentric relationship to the crimes chronicled in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The film presents him as rock-stupid…except for the moments when he’s wily and street-smart. (It takes the Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White, played by Jesse Plemons, quite a while to crack Ernest open.) The film presents him as a money-grubbing varmint…except that he’s also a devoted husband who cherishes his family.
Great movie characters, of course, can be rippled with contradiction; that’s what makes their stories rich and ambiguous. Just think of Scorsese’s Mob dramas, the “Godfather” films or “The Sopranos,” where ruthless killers are devoted to their families.
But in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Ernest feels less like a character of dark or even tragic impulses than like a man who, in any given scene, is what the film needs him to be. When he’s asked to do the ultimate dark deed — to add poison to the insulin shots his wife is taking — he carries out the task with such methodical thoughtlessness that instead of the heart of darkness opening up before us, we may feel like we’re seeing the heart of darkness closed off. Our connection to Ernest as a character should be deepening, but instead we’re on the outside looking in. Can a man slow-kill the wife he loves, without a shrug, all because he’s a dunce yokel following orders?
“Killers of the Flower Moon” has been hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, but I would say it’s a divisive movie. I wouldn’t call it love-it-or-hate-it. More like love-it vs. it’s-too-long-and-is-somehow-missing-something.” “Killers” isn’t the first Scorsese movie adapted from a work of nonfiction (“GoodFellas” was too, and “Raging Bull” was a brutal biopic). But it’s the first one to feel less like a drama than like an extended act of journalism. This happened, then this happened, and then this happened.
Yet for a film rooted in the density of history, there’s a disorienting lack of background to much of what takes place in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” As presented, the rural Oklahoma community it’s set in is a vicious snakepit, up to its neck in the murder and exploitation of the Osage; it’s as if we’re watching a toxic local industry. That’s all real, but how did it get that way? In “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” Scorsese anatomized how the Mob worked. Here, we watch the movie with essential questions nagging at us — like how the guardian system operates (the Osage don’t control their money, except that some of them kind of do) or how William Hale brought this scheme of organized murder into being. How Hale himself, a public friend and benefactor of the Osage, evolved into a genocidal terrorist is never even addressed — his terse heartlessness is presented as a fait accompli. (That’s why De Niro’s very good performance of jaunty evil never spooks you; it lacks a layer.) And Ernest Burkhart’s compliance in the scheme is presented with the same quality of rote objectivity. It’s as if they’ve all been doing this their whole lives.
Everything “Killers of the Flower Moon” shows us really happened, of course. The film is scrupulously true to the terrible facts of the Osage murders. Yet the answer to the “Why?” of how the Reign of Terror happened — that these men were heartless racists — is an accurate answer that still doesn’t always feel like a dramatically full answer. As we watch Mollie waste away, Lily Gladstone acts with a sorrowful bewilderment that haunts us, but the fact is that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a movie that asks us to spend three-and-a-half hours in the shoes of her affectless deceptive scoundrel of a husband, who by the end we may feel we understand less than we did at the beginning. If the movie seems too long to you, maybe that’s because it’s like sharing space with a ghost.
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