The demimondes depicted by the American master Martin Scorsese vary widely — his New York stories alone span three centuries — but they have one common requirement: It takes intelligence, of one kind or another, to navigate them. His protagonists are smart, street smart, shrewd, skillful or some combination of those qualities as a rule.
That rule is broken in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Normally, a character like Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) — a World War I veteran turned henchman in a plot to murder Osage people for their oil profits in 1920s Oklahoma — would either rise to the top of his uncle Bill Hale’s organization, or wise up and fight to stop it on his own. Ernest does neither, precisely because he lacks the qualities Scorsese has spent a lifetime depicting.
The quintessential Scorsese protagonist, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) also serves as the narrator of “Goodfellas.” It’s not just that he is a canny operator who helps plan a fictional version of the most lucrative heist in American history — his voice and his street smarts guide us through the Mafia’s underground society. It’s difficult to imagine Ernest having the know-how to pull off either task.
Ernest is not the first DiCaprio character to live a double life in Scorsese’s world. Amsterdam Vallon and Billy Costigan, his characters in “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed,” are undercover agents embedded in sophisticated crime organizations. They must think on their feet much faster than a man whose only task is to swindle a sick woman.
Sam Rothstein, a.k.a. Ace (Robert De Niro), the mob-associated gambling executive in “Casino,” and Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) in “The Last Temptation of Christ” are also leaders, ones who operate under great personal physical risk at that. Their very different lives routinely present them with challenges the likes of Ernest could never surmount.
The same goes for Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) from “The Age of Innocence.” Their doomed romance forces them to navigate the societal mores of wealth and status, with no all-powerful figure like King Hale (De Niro) to back them up.
No one would mistake Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, the iconic De Niro characters from “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” for geniuses, but each was brilliant in his own way at the application of violence.
Unlike Bickle or LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, the painfully unfunny would-be comedian played by De Niro in “The King of Comedy,” is no good at all at his chosen field. However, he successfully carries out a plan to kidnap the talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and ransom him for a turn in the spotlight.
Perhaps the closest a Scorsese character gets to Ernest is Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) in the black comedy “After Hours.” Like Ernest, Paul is a man in over his head (Hackett can’t hack it). But he’s an otherwise normal and competent person having one crazy night in downtown Manhattan, not a murderer.
Ernest is not an average Joe suffering a series of mishaps, like Hackett. Nor is he able to serve as a Henry Hill-esque narrator-navigator for the criminality of King Hale. He barely seems aware of what’s happening with his own small stake in the wider conspiracy, much less able to explain the entire thing to others. With even the mean success of a normal Scorsese criminal out of reach, Ernest is good for little more than relaying messages about murdering unarmed sick people — a task at which he fails as often as he succeeds — and occasionally chipping in by poisoning his own wife.
Indeed, Ernest is too thick — intellectually, emotionally morally — to do much of anything but allow his hand to be forced, first by King, then by the federal agents tasked with taking him down. He never really learns, never really comes clean, never really grasps the monstrousness of what’s happening until it’s too late. He’s just not sharp enough to see it, or to allow himself to be shown. The man is a zero — the mental and moral void into which King Hale’s Osage targets and their allies disappear.
The Scorsese movie we get out of him is very different as a result. A sharper character would have implied that it takes some canniness, cunning or charisma to plunder a land and its people. Instead, Ernest shows us that the bigotry and greed that fueled the genocidal campaign against the Osage are ultimately stupid, and the resulting tragedy all the sadder for it.