Scorsese’s new approach to the gangster story
The Washington Post October 17, 2023
Here’s the thing about getting a 20-minute interview with Martin Scorsese: A 20-minute interview with Martin Scorsese is like a 40-minute interview with anyone else, because Martin Scorsese talks twice as fast as most humans. The words rush out, not in sentences, or even paragraphs, but as scrolling pages of oration, in which Scorsese expounds on history — cinematic, American, his own — with passion, professorial depth and a tempo set at Tommy gun.
On a warm late September day, somewhere in the bowels of a tony hotel on Central Park South, Scorsese is squeezing in a few more interviews before getting ready for the New York premiere of his new movie, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Inspired by David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name, the adaptation tells the alternately gripping and horrifying story of the systematic exploitation and murder of a community of Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the early 1920s.
It’s new territory for Scorsese, who despite making movies about everything from Howard Hughes and Wall Street to Edith Wharton-era New York and Tibetan Buddhism, will always be best known for his films about gangs, ritualized violence and antisocial outsiders. Then again, the worlds of “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” aren’t that far removed from the dusty towns of Osage County, where “Killers of the Flower Moon” (opening in theaters Oct. 20) takes place, and where greed, venality and nearly unfathomable brutality permeate nearly every echelon of society.
“All these townspeople ... petty criminals, major criminals, but [also] people in power — all of this is something I kind of know,” Scorsese says of the mobsters who held sway in New York’s Little Italy, where he grew up. “I’m not saying my family was that way. I’m just saying we lived with it. And so I found it to be very natural to make the transition.”
Then there’s Hank Williams.
Scorsese’s mother, Catherine, loved Williams, which imbued Scorsese with a lifelong admiration for country music, not to mention folk and blues. An early version of “Lovesick Blues,” which later became a hit for Williams, can be heard in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” along with songs performed by the Carter Family and Ma Rainey.
“All of that is mixed together,” Scorsese says of the myriad, sometimes contradictory impulses that informed the story’s time and place. “And ... this is part of being American, I think. I learned this great lesson when I was trying to live in Rome in the late ’70s, thinking for a little while that I was Italian. I’m not.”
Like most of his movies, “Killers of the Flower Moon” provides a channel for Scorsese to explore the most troubling contours of what “being American” really means — in this case, through the vernacular of perhaps the most American genre of them all. He’s wanted to make a western nearly all his life, since his parents started taking him to movie theaters as refuges for a little boy suffering from asthma:
“The western, to me, was a genre that had open spaces; that had, in some cases, black and white [photography], in other cases beautiful Technicolor; horses, all these animals I couldn’t go near because I was allergic to them. ... And so for me it was like an extraordinary fantasy, in a way.”
Later, when filmmakers like Robert Wise and Raoul Walsh were creating “psychological” westerns like “Blood on the Moon” and “Pursued,” Scorsese realized that the tropes traditionally associated with adventure and optimism could be used to convey darker truths.
“I always had an instinct to want to do something with that landscape,” he recalls, interrupting himself to make a correction. “On that landscape, I should say, because you don’t do the landscape, it’s the people who are there, the idea of what story I could tell.”
By 1969, when Sam Peckinpah made “The Wild Bunch” and “finished the genre,” Scorsese wasn’t sure if he could — or should — add anything.
“He wiped the slate clean,” Scorsese recalls of Peckinpah. Having imprinted on the movies of Wise and Walsh, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, letting his mind go all the way back to the Roy Rogers movies he loved as a child, he thought, “Can I ever dare compete with those images? Never mind compete, [can I] equal them?”
In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Scorsese might have found the ideal text on which to bring his particular sensibility to bear. For one thing, the Osage County of the 1920s was a fascinatingly liminal space, where horses and Pierce-Arrows crowded rambunctious streets, and where the cowboys-and-Indians dynamic was disrupted by the fact that it was the Native Americans, not the white settlers, who were the prosperous ones, as beneficiaries of oil wells discovered on their tribal lands. “Killers of the Flower Moon” stars two longtime Scorsese repertory players, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, as landowner Bill Hale and World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart, both seeking their fortunes during the oil boom by any means necessary; Lily Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who became Ernest’s wife, and whose family was profoundly affected by Hale and Burkhart’s fiercest ambitions.
Indeed, at their most unrepentantly striving, the villains in “Killers of the Flower Moon” bear an uncanny resemblance to the criminals in “Goodfellas,” Scorsese’s 1990 drama about the rise and fall of a New York gangster. In Osage County, the grand scheme was different, but the motivation was the same: “[The Osage] had a lot of money, [Hale and Burkhart] come in, they want the money, they find which way they can get the money,” Scorsese says in rat-a-tat rapid fire, adding that this story has the added element of government collusion, with a paternalistic guardianship system that allowed whites to control the Osage’s finances.
“’They’re sitting there and this oil is coming up; they haven’t worked for this,’” Scorsese says, paraphrasing how the whites bent the Protestant work ethic to justify their corruption. “’They’re not Christians like us from the Old World. So if they don’t understand the value of money — well, how bad is it if I make a little bit more?’”
Karen Hill, portrayed by Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas,” expressed the same kind of rationale in her voice-over during the film, explaining that Henry and his co-conspirators were just providing for their families.
“Exactly,” Scorsese says. “But the difference here is really through Mollie.”
Mollie Burkhart is a new kind of Scorsese protagonist: As both crime victim and conscience, she’s given pride of place, both visually and narratively, the filmmaker’s camera lingering on her face when she wrestles with the violence being done to her family and community. Scorsese often spoke about “letting the camera be still” during production, recalls Scorsese’s longtime researcher and producer, Marianne Bower. That stylistic choice, she adds, means that “possibly you don’t get those same jolts that you’re going to get in a ‘Mean Streets’ or a ‘Taxi Driver,’ that kind of carry you through in this energy of those characters. ... It has a different kind of thought behind it, that stillness.”
Mollie also embodies a kind of moral consequence that was either elided or missing entirely in Scorsese’s earlier films, in which the aggression and impunity of Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” Jordan Belfort turned them into cinematic icons — and, for some, folk heroes.
“People enjoyed watching them beat the system,” Scorsese says of his earlier antiheroes. “I don’t think there are any vicarious thrills in terms of these guys. You know, Bill Hale has these big schemes, he’s killing people off, and in the meantime he burns his fields for $30,000 [of] insurance money. What is he up to? What he really is up to is that he feels, like certain people, ‘I could kill somebody on Fifth Avenue and nobody will hold me to it.’ He can get away with anything.”
Scorsese points to an episode when Hale and Burkhart conspire to blow up the house of one of their neighbors and his Osage wife: “‘They’re in the way. We’ve got to get both of them at the same time, blow up the house.’ Blow up the house? In the middle of an area that’s basically a town? I mean, it’s crazy.”
I observe that a similar scene takes place in “Goodfellas,” when two henchmen set fire to a bar, a scene that is shot, edited and scored for maximum coolness.
“Well, they’re mischievous,” Scorsese says crisply.
That distinction represents a radical tonal shift in Scorsese’s most recent films: In 2019’s “The Irishman,” De Niro’s aging hoodlum isn’t a figure of transgressive wish fulfillment as much as physical and spiritual exhaustion. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Hale and Burkhart play like duller, less charismatic doppelgängers of Jimmy and Henry in “Goodfellas”: The audience doesn’t cheer when they pull off their seedy plots, or thrill, however queasily, to the pulverizing violence they perpetrate. Instead, the tone is mournful, suffused with dread and regret.
“I think ‘mournfulness’ is really accurate,” says “Killers of the Flower Moon” co-screenwriter Eric Roth. Roth and Scorsese have been friends for years and have discussed collaborating on projects about their mutual passions, which range from Proust to Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and their social circle. It was Roth who gave De Niro a copy of Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which became “The Irishman.” (Roth wasn’t available to write the script, so he suggested Steven Zaillian.) The more contemplative, elegiac tone of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Roth says, “is one of the reasons I love this movie so much.”
“I think there’s a social content to this [film] that he’s had in different ways in different movies,” Roth says of Scorsese, adding that the director “leaned into” the moral seriousness more explicitly than in his past crime thrillers. “I think when people are coming to the end of their mortal coil here — including me, I’m only a couple of years younger than him — that this stuff resonates with you, and how it comes out is really fascinating.”
Bower notes that the way Scorsese portrays the murders in “Killers of the Flower Moon” represents a personal and artistic culmination.
“There’s a whole lifetime behind them,” she says of what he chooses to leave on- and off-screen. “That’s what moves me when I see the most recent films.”
Scorsese, who will turn 81 in November, agrees that the cadence of his work has changed.
“I think a lot of it has to do with experience and age,” he says. “And family. Marriage, children.”
I ask him whether he thinks there’s something inherent to the cinematic medium that rewards the audience’s attraction to violence, that valorizes it and makes it, against our most noble instincts, exciting.
“It could be,” Scorsese says. “But the point is that there’s part of me that feels that way. So I’m gonna hide it? I guess if you were a real pro director in the old days, maybe you did. And you’d put it in the context of genre, and you’d put it in the context of a more heightened sense of entertainment, and you’d get away with it.
“I don’t know how to do that,” he continues. “I simply don’t. Is there a difference between that and making films about ... heroes that are so physically built up coming in with machine guns, and the way to solve a problem is to be strong and beat everybody up? It’s been 30 years [of that] now. I’m more interested in the defects of that.”