The Big Picture

  • Robert De Niro’s performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon” is sinister and showcases the monstrous nature of everyday men.
  • De Niro’s portrayal of William Hale is devoid of humanity and highlights the true villains, who are ordinary people using charm to hide their evil intentions.
  • The film exposes the collective capacity for violence against marginalized groups and serves as a commentary on America’s history and the tainted fabric of the country.

Though Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have worked together for quite a while, they’ve never done anything quite like Killers of the Flower Moon. Sure, De Niro has played cruel characters before, but his performance here as the manipulative William Hale is operating on another level of sinister. It is something that gets to the heart of what defines the country that most would like to overlook by showing just how monstrous everyday men can be.

Though it is the great Lily Gladstone who is the standout part of the film overall, De Niro still gives one of his best performances as well. It is as if Travis Bickle put on a suit and stripped away any humanity his former self may have been clinging to. Hale is the type of man who will set in motion horrific violence and then show up the next day to offer his condolences without any shame in doing so. While it builds upon some of the ideas the director and actor duo have explored before, there is nothing quite like how it comes to life here. It is not just one of the best works the two have ever made, but more proof that both are still pushing themselves to new heights even as their characters are brought further down into the depths.

Robert De Niro Is America’s True Self in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Lily Gladstone Robert De Niro Leonardo DiCaprio Killers of the Flower Moon
Image via Apple TV+

Taking place in 1920s Oklahoma when members of the Osage Nation were murdered for their wealth, the film is fundamentally one about evil and just how deeply embedded it is in America’s history. Not only is it a painfully true story in terms of the historical record, but it gets to the core of the collective capacity for violence against those deemed to be disposable. It is very much operating in conversation with their past films, all the way from the aforementioned Taxi Driver to The Irishman, as it takes part in yet another deconstruction of the mythologies of both genre and history. There are no heroes in this “Western” and there is no salvation to be found in the small community as it is they who are carrying out the violence. More acutely than anything the two have done, it peels back the layers of the lies being told to show who it is that we are when the mask comes off. De Niro expresses this is in the small moments just as much as the big ones where almost ordinary conversations about money carry with them a growing sense of dread. From the very moment Hale begins talking with his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) about the lay of the land, it is clear that he intends to destroy anyone and everyone to accumulate more wealth.

What De Niro does to be so despicable here is to never overplay the character. There is no moment where he twirls his mustache or gives a grand monologue about his gruesome intentions. Instead, even when he is talking about killing people, he feels like he is just describing his grocery order. The way he carries himself is terrifying as we see the calculating nature to every move he makes as his greed and callousness consumes everything he touches. There are greater aspirations to his performance as he exposes how the true villains of the world are not the ones we often see in movies where they feel cartoonish or contrived. Instead, they are ordinary people who put on a smile and use their charm while twisting the knife they have stabbed you with. He does not care about anyone other than himself.

This is a man of America’s past, present, and future. There is no redemption to be found for him as it is always just about enriching himself further. Even in the duo’s last film when he was playing a hitman for organized crime, it felt like there was a path the character could go down that found some way towards healing and that there was a conflicted nature to him. There is no such possibility here as De Niro shows how Hale will sink to however low he needs to in order to keep the murder plot going. He will pretend to be a friend to the Osage while cutting them down one by one, showing up at their funerals like nothing has happened.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Is About the Everyday Evil of Men Like Robert De Niro’s Hale

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons as William Hale and Tom White in Killers of the Flower Moon
Image via Apple TV+

In the end, this is no mere retread of some of De Niro’s villainous roles of the past. Instead, it is something far more depraved that is unlike anything the two have ever captured before. De Niro creates a man who is evil incarante yet also one that is painfully familiar. As he offers faux kindness after faux kindess, it becomes more and more sickening to take in. It is not just distinct for De Niro, but something that more films would benefit from sitting with. Though there is plenty to be discussed about whether the film spends too much time with his character at the expense of others, the veteran actor does everything he can to draw out just how despicable yet commonplace he is. If many of their past films were about showing the way gangsters and hitmen were not aberrations but part of the fabric of the country itself, this one is about how that fabric itself is tainted with blood spilled by those at the very top of it.

No matter how much we may try to forget such a history or cast it aside as being a thing of the past, men like Hale are everywhere in history and the present. As De Niro and Scorsese bring this to life over this epic story more than they ever have before, which is saying something considering the rich legacy of the collaborations between the actor and director, it ensures that Killers of the Flower Moon will always remain among their very best work.

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