Martin Scorsese’s Unwise Guys

If “Men Without Women” seems painfully apt as a title for Ernest Hemingway’s fiction, the equivalent for Martin Scorsese’s work might be “Men Failing Women.” From “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” to “Killers of the Flower Moon,” for more than 50 years, his movies have been a dismal and heartbreaking primer on what not to do when you love someone. His male protagonists continue to fail their significant others even when given multiple chances to reverse that pattern: a paradigm even more fraught if the protagonist is a white dimwit and his wife a long-suffering Osage.

In his welcome to the audience before “Killers” begins, Scorsese confides that his film is deeply personal, and it is, not just because he has always had a keen sense of social injustice but also because of its obsession with the jaw-dropping gap between the man his protagonist wants to be and the man he is. Which helps explain an aspect of the movie that has most puzzled some reviewers: If it is about what happened to the Osage, then why are we spending so much time with a white schnook?

Maybe because the self-deluded sinner who wants to repent but refuses to change has been Scorsese’s most persistent and agonized subject. At their most dysfunctional, those figures are so terrifying that they’ve become cultural totems of toxic masculinity — Travis Bickle! Jake La Motta! — as their rage at their inadequacies lacerates everything, including, of course, the women closest to them.

Even at their best, Scorsese’s protagonists never want to face certain hard facts, and in their pursuit of a good time, they’re masters of what “Animal House” memorialized as a “really futile and stupid gesture.” It figures that they’re often hoods or hustlers, either with a pool cue or hedge fund. And happily for us, Scorsese has never been able to resist the energy they bring to a movie. “Goodfellas” is peerless at viscerally rendering the appeal of the gangster’s freewheeling heartlessness, and when “Killers” comes closest to that energy — when the two male leads frantically argue over the pea-brained implementation of a murder they’ve arranged — the result is the movie’s most high-spirited comic moment.

What we’re confronting in these movies is self-absorption without understanding: the self as an incomprehensible spectacle. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart seems flummoxed by his actions every step of the way, given how much he is sure he loves Lily Gladstone’s Mollie. He tells his uncle that he loves money and women, and Mollie’s a dream combination of both, given her oil wealth. At first his courting goes nowhere, but eventually she is won over — DiCaprio is DiCaprio, after all, even if he does spend the movie in a permanent frown, and she’s also drawn to his honesty when he wryly confesses his own laziness and greed — and the question for the audience becomes why she isn’t acting on his transparent duplicity. One reason might involve the sheer scale of his treachery — he’s betraying her as a part of a conspiracy to murder her entire family, including her, as well as any number of others — but another might be how much when in love we work to deny what we know in the name of faith or hope. After her sister is murdered, Mollie’s voice-over reveals that she keeps her fears at bay by closing her heart and keeping what’s good there. She knows not to trust corrupt doctors with her insulin, but she can’t bring herself to acknowledge Ernest’s role in what is happening. She confides to her priest that she’s afraid to eat in her own house, but when he asks who might want to harm her, she remains silent. When she is discovered at death’s door by F.B.I. agents, even in her extremity she asks, “Where’s my husband?”

And if Mollie is the angel on Ernest’s shoulder, his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) is the devil: playing on Ernest’s humiliation by reminding him that she’s making things harder on him and informing him that she had another husband she has kept secret (as if Hale is aware that a reliable trigger of abusiveness in a Scorsese movie is the murderousness of male jealousy) and finally appearing at Mollie’s bedside so much like the Angel of Death that in her delirium, she asks if he’s real.

But this passion play is Ernest’s. Because he insists that he loves Mollie, he therefore would never want to hurt her, and therefore can’t be doing so. As Rob Corddry of “The Daily Show” put it on the subject of Abu Ghraib: “Just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.” Which is where the movie’s race politics becomes so brutal as well: Mollie is, after all, not white, and as such even easier to disregard.

As his uncle’s plotting gets ever more destructive, Ernest begins to grope his way toward opting out — he hesitates, at least, about contacting the thug tasked with blowing up his sister-in-law’s house with her in it — and the subsequent long shot of the devastation he confronts afterward works nicely as a figure for his inner life. By administering the insulin he has poisoned, he can simultaneously enact his love and eradicate the problem she poses to his sense of himself as not an awful man. In the same way, he caves to his uncle’s demand that he sign the insurance policy on his own life; he knows what it implies but resolves to act as though he doesn’t. Like so many of Scorsese’s sinners, he wants to do penance, and so drinks the drug he has been adding to Mollie’s insulin, while the fires of hell apparently burn outside (fields set afire, also the work of Uncle Hale).

Jesse Plemons’s F.B.I. agent Tom White, the main figure of rectitude, finally says to Ernest, “You’re a good man, Ernest, and you love your wife and children.” He continues, “I don’t think this is how your life was meant to turn out,” and reminds him that his uncle has done nothing except make him do bad things and take advantage of him because of his disposition, that last noun reminding us of both his flaws and his agency.

After he finally testifies, in Mollie’s presence, to most of what he has done, in the movie’s most excruciating scene, the couple are given time in a room, and DiCaprio and Gladstone are spectacularly good at what direness can pass between a married couple even if they love each other. She waits for him to come clean, and he won’t. She asks if he has told her the whole truth. He answers he has. She has to keep pressing — What did he give her, in her insulin? What was in the shots? — and though he is demolished by her pain and his guilt, he won’t confess. Her face hardens, and she leaves.

Scorsese’s movies have persistently left their protagonists in this semi-disingenuous state of sitting clueless amid the rubble. From Jimmy Doyle to Ace Rothstein to Howard Hughes, however much they intermittently adore their women, they find themselves gaping at the pain they’ve caused as if through the wrong end of a telescope. Their regard, when they feel it, is intense, but in the male-dominated world of striving they inhabit, that regard evaporates periodically, and they’re baffled if not enraged to be called on that. They’re indemnified by their knowledge of who they meant to be, and that ideal self becomes the version they stridently defend. Just because torturing prisoners is something we did …

The last time we see Ernest, he’s still pitching between self-pity and self-awareness. He is in that same maddening state in which “Raging Bull” left Jake La Motta, who at one point manages to figure it out: “I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it’s comin’ back to me.”

Source photographs for illustration above: Apple TV+; Getty Images.

Jim Shepard has written eight novels, including most recently “Phase Six” and “The Book of Aron,” which won the PEN/New England Award for fiction and the Clark Fiction Prize. He teaches at Williams College.

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