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Inside the Mind of Martin Scorsese: A Brief Look at Killers of the Flower Moon

If Hollywood were represented by one filmmaker, few choices would be more apt than Martin Scorsese. Scorsese's career comprises of everything from epic crime thrillers to quiet reflections on morality and religion, from children's science fiction films to real-life documentaries. To add to his wide variety as a filmmaker, he is also one of the most prominent voices on the importance of film as an artistic medium and the need for media literacy in the 21st century. In recent years, much of the discourse around Martin Scorsese focuses not on his impressive career, or the noticeable effort to preserve films from all around the world, but on comments he made about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when he proclaimed that those movies are not really cinema, but something more akin to amusement park rides. His newest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, has just finished its theatre run, proving to be a look inside Scorsese's mind.

Inside the Mind of Martin Scorsese: A Brief Look at Killers of the Flower Moon

The first thing one would notice about the film is that it is the first time two of Scorsese's most frequent collaborators, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio, share the screen for the first time in film of his. Scorsese is known for bringing out the best in his actors, and this is no different in Killers. DeNiro becomes a different level of terrifying, very different from the cold psychopath in Cape Fear. His portrayal of a cold, calculating, money-hungry patriarch who puts on a facade of being caring, and considerate strikes a new level of fear in both the characters and audiences alike. DiCaprio takes a shift from playing a tough, confident, and capable leading man to a more meek, dull-witted, yes man who does not really know what is going on around him. The conflict between the fear of his uncle and his greed for money, and his genuine love for his wife and family is expertly portrayed through the actor's eyes. DiCaprio played a similar character who was a bit of an incompetent has-been in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and this shift suits the man well.

Perhaps the most prominent feature that appears when examining Scorsese's films is that he is an American filmmaker. Out of his twenty-seven narrative feature films, only four are set in places outside of America. His films examine the popular myth of the 'American Dream'; which is the notion that grounds American society. It is a social ideology that prefaces hard work and upward social mobility being achieved through this hard work. Historically, the idea of the American Dream emerged from the American frontier and evolved as the white settlers slowly drove out and settled the lands that rightfully belonged to the Native Indians. Scorsese's films have always been critical of this idea. As early as 1977, in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle returns home from the Vietnam War only to find his country overtaken by crime, urban despair, and a general decline of the American social order. This was not the America Travis fought for and this greatly upsets him and this conflict becomes much of the driver of the film.

While Scorsese's earlier films have looked at the American Dream from the perspective of the white working-class man, Killers of the Flower Moon attacks this dream at its very inception. We still have the white working man protagonist, but the key focus here is not the collapse of the dream for him, but how he attains that dream. It happens through lies, deceit, and murder. The white colonisers take the land of the native Indians by marrying into their families and ensuring that they are the only surviving male members to whom the land can go. DeNiro's Hale, in his sparkling white suit, is the representation of the American Dream. In portraying him as Scorsese does, he unveils the dream to be not the popular notion of hard work and grit, but instead a cold, unfeeling patriarch who will stop at nothing to get material wealth. Whether this happens through murder or exploiting his own family, it does not matter: what only matters is how much money can be made.

This is a rather bold statement from someone who has lately come under a lot of fire for making movies that have been misunderstood as hyperviolent 'dudebro' movies. When in 2019, Scorsese first made comments against the Marvel Cinematic Universe, several fans of the franchise took to Twitter to say that he is simply an old white man who only makes violent movies, framing him as an enemy of progressivism. While it is true that Scorsese's most popular films have largely male protagonists and generally glorify hyperviolence, Killers subverts the usage of those elements to say something meaningful about society. The protagonist is a white man but he is a weak and pathetic person who is dancing to the music conducted by someone above him. This is contrasted with Lilly Gladstone's Mollie, the Native Indian woman who is the second lead of the film, who remains poised and calm throughout the film. Even after her whole family is killed, and she is in a state of dire sickness and ill health, retains a sense of poise and calm. The violence in the film is quite gory, but it is swift. The scenes of killing are not extended so as to revel their glory but are very much meant for the audience to feel uncomfortable.

Besides, to say that Scorsese only makes gangster movies that appeal to the male power fantasy is extremely reductive. Over the course of six decades, there are few kinds of films Scorsese has not made. Only six gangster films reside within his filmography. Instead, you find a wide variety of films like period pieces, comedies, musicals, and many more. Among these, what one often finds is that Scorsese is fascinated by faith. A lot of his films often deal with a conflict of faith, where a deeply devout person is faced with circumstances that challenge their faith. The most prominent examples of these are Silence, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Kundun, which are quiet introspective dramas; but these themes find their way into other films like Mean Streets and The Irishman, which are the more violent films that the popular image of Scorsese is associated with. While Killers does not overtly deal with faith and the conflict, it does show real Native Indian ceremonies such as prayers, weddings, and funerals. The authenticity of the actual rituals shown in the film is respectful and very impressive.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the twenty-seventh film from a filmmaker who has had a long and illustrious career. To go into his career is akin to delving into the history of modern Hollywood. Killers looks glorious in the Imax format and makes full use of the art of cinema to tell a story that is not only beautiful but also relevant. We are living in the middle of conflicts dealing with colonisers and the colonised all over the world. Scorsese has always been a political filmmaker and this is an example of the man at his finest. Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the most important films of our times.