From ‘Goodfellas’ to ‘Flower Moon’: How Scorsese Has Rethought Violence

Of all the haunting images and disturbing sounds that permeate Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” none is more upsetting than the guttural cry from Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a tortured wail of rage and grief that escapes her reserved visage when tragedy strikes. And it often does: “Killers” tells the true story, adapted from the book by David Grann, of how Mollie’s Osage community was decimated by murderous white men, who killed dozens of her tribe members for rights to their oil-rich land.

Mollie’s howl of pain is not quite like any sound heard before in a Scorsese film. But in many ways, Scorsese is emulating her jarring cry in the ominous aesthetics of “Killers of the Flower Moon” itself, and of his 2019 feature, “The Irishman.”

The movies have much in common: their creative teams, expansive running times, period settings, narrative density and epic scope. But what most keenly sets them apart from the rest of Scorsese’s work is the element by which the filmmaker is arguably most easily identified: their violence. In these films, the deaths, which are frequent, are hard and fast and blunt, a marked departure from the intricately stylized and ornately edited set pieces of his earlier work.

“The violence is different now, in these later movies,” Thelma Schoonmaker, his editor since 1980, noted recently. “And often it’s in a wide shot. It’s hardly ever a tight shot, which is very different from his earlier movies, right?”

It certainly is. Wide shots, for those unfamiliar with the lingo of cinematography, are spacious, open compositions, often full-body views of characters and their surroundings (frequently used for broad-scale action or establishing shots). Medium-wides are slightly closer, but still allow us to observe multiple characters and their surroundings. The “tight shots” that Schoonmaker references as more typical of Scorsese’s earlier work are the medium shots, close-ups and extreme close-ups that place the camera (and thus the viewer) right in the middle of the melee.

Take, as an example, one of Scorsese’s most effective sequences, the murder of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) in his 1990 crime drama, “Goodfellas.” When Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) kill Batts, it’s dramatized in a flurry of setups and rapid-fire edits: from a three-shot of Tommy’s initial punch, to an overhead shot of Batts hitting the floor, a low-angle composition (from Batts’s point of view) of Tommy pummeling him with his fists, then an already-dollying camera that tracks Henry (Ray Liotta) as he goes to lock the bar’s front door. Scorsese cuts back to Tommy landing more punches, then cuts to Jimmy contributing a series of kicks, with a quick insert of a particularly nasty one landing on Batts’s brutalized face. We then see, briefly, Tommy holding a gun, Henry reacting to all of this in shock, more kicks from Jimmy and more punches from Tommy, as blood spurts from Batts’s face.

It’s a signature Scorsese scene, combining unflinching brutality, dark humor and incongruent music (the jukebox is blasting Donovan’s midtempo ballad “Atlantis”). It’s a tough, ugly bit of business — and it’s also pleasurable. There is, in this sequence and much of Scorsese’s crime filmography, a thrill to his staging and cutting that is often infectious.

He’s such an electrifying filmmaker that even when dramatizing upsetting and difficult events, we find ourselves swept into the visceral virtuosity of his mise-en-scène. It’s this duality, the discomfort of enjoying the actions of criminals or killers or vigilantes, that makes his pictures so potent: Jake LaMotta’s beatings in “Raging Bull,” the high-speed execution of Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets” and particularly the gun-toting rampage of Travis Bickle at the end of “Taxi Driver” are all the more disturbing because of the spell Scorsese casts.

That’s not how the violence works in “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.” When people die in these films, it’s grim, nasty, divergent in every way from the dirty kicks of “Goodfellas” or “Casino” (1995). In “The Irishman,” Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) is dispatched in two setups, one wide and one medium, bang bang bang; the deaths of Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) and Crazy Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) are likewise framed wide, hard and fast — simple, bloody, done. One of the film’s most upsetting scenes, when Frank (De Niro) drags his young daughter to the corner grocery store so she can watch him beat up a shopkeeper, is staged with similar simplicity: Scorsese keeps the scene to a single wide shot as Frank goes in, drags the man over his counter, smashes him through the door, kicks him, beats him and stomps on his hand. Scorsese cuts away only once — to the little girl’s horrified reaction.

Scorsese carries this sparseness into “Killers of the Flower Moon.” An early montage of Osage people on their deathbeds concludes with the murder of Charlie Whitehorn (Anthony J. Harvey), who is killed in two cold, complementary medium-wides. Another character is hooded on the street, dragged into an alley and stabbed to death, with all of the action in two wide shots; a third is knocked down in one wide shot, then thrashed to death in a low-angle medium. The mayhem is over before it even starts.

“When I was growing up, I was in situations where everything was fine — and then, suddenly, violence broke out,” Scorsese told the film critic Richard Schickel in 2011. “You didn’t get a sense of where it was coming from, what was going to happen. You just knew that the atmosphere was charged, and, bang, it happened.”

That feeling — that “bang, it happened” — is what makes the violence in “Killers” so upsetting. The most jarring and scary death comes early, with the murder of Sara Butler (Jennifer Rader) as she attends to her baby in a carriage; it’s all done in one medium wide shot, a pop and a burst of blood. A late-film courtroom flashback to an inciting murder is even more gutting, because we know it’s coming, so as the characters walk into the wide shot and arrange themselves, it’s more tense than any of Scorsese’s breathless montages could ever be.

In contrast to the constant needle drops of “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” the murders in “Killers” and “The Irishman” often occur without musical accompaniment, nothing to soften or smother the cold crack of a single gunshot. This is most haunting in the closing stretch of “The Irishman,” as Frank makes the long, sad trip to kill his friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s an order from on high, and Frank is merely a foot soldier, so he can’t do a thing about his pal’s fate but dwell. Scorsese makes us dwell with him, lingering on every detail, filling the soundtrack with the thick, heavy silence of surrender. And when the time comes, Scorsese stages one of the most famous unsolved murders of our time with a glum, doomed inevitability, as Frank stands behind Hoffa, puts two into him, drags him to the middle of the freshly laid carpet, and leaves.

In these films, Scorsese has stripped his violence of its flourishes and curlicues, boiling it down to its essence. Of the comparatively restrained violence of his “Gangs of New York” (2002), Scorsese told Schickel, “I don’t really want to do it anymore — after doing the killing of Joe Pesci and his brother in ‘Casino,’ in the cornfield. If you look at it, it isn’t shot in any special way. It doesn’t have any choreography to it. It doesn’t have any style to it, it’s just flat. It’s not pretty. There was nothing more to do than to show what that way of life leads to.”

Perhaps Scorsese was ready to dramatize violence as he remembered it, rather than how he’d seen it in the movies. Or perhaps, at age 80, he is acutely aware of his own mortality, and that awareness is affecting how he sees and presents death in his own work. Scorsese ends “The Irishman” with Frank literally picking out his own coffin and crypt; side characters are all introduced with onscreen text detailing their eventual deaths (“Frank Sindone — shot three times in an alley, 1980”). It’s coming for everyone, the director seems to insist, not in a razzle-dazzle set piece, but in a sudden moment of brutality, shrouded in a cold, endless silence.

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