Martin Scorsese’s Catholic Faith Shines in ‘Killers of The Flower Moon’


(REVIEW) Martin Scorsese’s latest film may be among his greatest, and also, fittingly, his most Christian. 

Scorsese has always been open about his Catholic faith and his struggles with it. As one of America’s most celebrated directors, having done everything from “Taxi Driver” to “Goodfellas” to “Wolf of Wall Street” to “Silence,” he also famously directed one of the most notorious Jesus movies of all time. “The Last Temptation of Christ” is so reviled by conservative Christians that it portrayed Jesus as sinful. It even sparked protests when it was released in 1988.  

But for Scorsese, the film was always about wrestling with God, and to help him identify with the human side of Jesus. As he said in a statement about the film as the outcry was at its hottest: “It is more than just another film project for me. I believe it is a religious film about the struggle to find God. It was made with conviction and love and so I believe it is an affirmation of faith, not a denial. Further, I feel strongly that people everywhere will be able to identify with the human side of Jesus as well as his divine side.”

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Scorsese has spoken often elsewhere about how much his faith means to him and how he proudly identifies as a Catholic, saying once: “I believe in the tenets of Catholicism. I’m not a doctor of the church. I’m not a theologian who could argue the trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”

This wrestling continues with “Killers of The Flower Moon,” in many ways, his most deeply Catholic film yet. But this time, he seems less focused on making Jesus closer to him and more focused on getting himself closer to Jesus.

Based on the book of the same name by David Grann, the film follows the true story of how members of the Osage tribe in the United States were murdered under mysterious circumstances in the 1920s, sparking a major FBI investigation. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernst Burkhart, a soldier who comes to live in the Osage town with his uncle “King” Bill Hale, whose plans to keep the Osage money for himself facilitates and threatens Ernst’s relationship with his new Osage wife, Molly Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone.

“Killers of The Flower Moon” is a triumph for Scorsese, a filmmaker who, at almost 81 years old is at the height of his powers. The film is in many ways a classic Scorsese yarn, with greedy gangsters and a lovable but corrupt antihero rising in prosperity through wickedness until he’s caught like in a “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” way. Iin many ways, it’s like the new Scorsese, whose last two films, “Silence” and “The Irishman,” are more contemplative. The focus is much more on people who are seeking opportunities for redemption and either accept or reject it.

Watching “Killers of The Flower Moon,” feels much more like an old school church than it does it does the rock concerts or football games (or the “theme park rides,” as he calls Marvel films, just a few years ago). With movies like “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Wolf of Wall Street,” the screen is filled with excess and bombast that seduces us with its promises of splendor, wealth and sex before showing us how empty it all is.

With Scorsese’s latest films, he seems more concerned with filling the room with silence that invites you to be quiet and pay attention to the quiet and the intimate, gentle beauty that’s happening before you. (And since Scorsese’s next film is supposedly about Jesus, it’s very likely we’ll get more of this new style).

It’s in the quiet moments that “Killers of The Flower Moon” really soars. Three of the most powerful scenes come directly after each other, with Ernst telling his uncle he’s decided to testify, with him taking the stand and then being confronted by his wife.

Religion plays a frequent and explicit role in this film as well. God is explicitly credited with giving the wealth to the Osage tribe that they got through the oil. As film critic Alyssa Wilkinson wrote for Vox, Scorsese’s films have always had his antiheroes caught between the faith they professed and the way they lived their lives. It’s the same thing here. Ernst tells Molly he’s a Catholic — but she calls him out for not seeing him at Mass.

The way Scorsese consistently wrestles with faith in his movies is one of the most interesting things about him as a Hollywood director. An ever-present theme of his films is how to reconcile what he was taught as an Italian Catholic with what he learned of the real world growing up on the “mean streets,” of New York, which didn’t always validate what the church taught about love and justice.

And yet, unlike other filmmakers who note this tension, such like Kenneth Branagh with “Belfast,” he doesn’t ultimately reject it or blame the religion. This could be because of his admiring relationship he had with his childhood priest. 

“I was extraordinarily lucky, because I had a remarkable priest, Father [Frank] Principe,” he said. “I learned so much from him, and that includes mercy with oneself and with others. This man was a real guide. He could talk tough, but he never actually forced you to do anything — he guided you. Advised you. Cajoled you. He had such extraordinary love.”

That causes Scorsese to imagine some truly rare ways that the world to reconcile what he’s taught in church with what he sees in the world. For one thing, he is a rare filmmaker in Hollywood who portrays individuals as evil but American institutions as essentially good, including the church and the government. Most Hollywood films, as I wrote about for Relevant Magazine this year, do it the other way around: The church and state are evil, but individuals can stand up against them and be the heroes.

This leads to a very particularly Christian way his movies portray justice. Scorsese’s films depict a world where — just like the Psalms say — the wicked seem to prosper, but they promise that ultimately they would get their just desserts (Psalm 73). In Scorsese films, the “heroes” — or rather the protagonists — are quite often the bad guys, using crooked or harmful means to get what they want and being rewarded with exactly that. Whether that’s the gangsters in “Goodfellas” and “Casino” or crooked wall street tycoon like Jordan Belfort in “Wolf of Wall Street,’” Yet, in his movies, rarely do these villains get away with their evil deeds. The good guys — however little screen time these heroes get — almost always swoop in and catch the bad guys in the end.

The wickedness of evil men catches up to them simply their own hubris or the work of good men. The good men who are tasked to stop them (like Kyle Chandler’s Patrick Denham from “Wolf of Wall Street” and  Jesse Plemons’s Tom White from “Killers of The Flower Moon”) rarely fall prey to temptation by the villain or fail to get their man. Ultimately, God had made a universe where justice is served. This is something Scorcese probably saw with people he knew growing up on those aforementioned “mean streets.” His Catholic upbringing gave him the lens to see it this way.

Even more profoundly, seeing the world through a Christian imagination leads to a very Christian take on how grace and redemption can be seen in crime and the law. In Christianity, you are saved from sin by confessing them to God and the church, then repenting the evil and changing your behavior. In the same way, Scorsese portrays the path to redemption for the criminal — how he gets away with not being damned for his sins and getting to live on with his life — as being through full confession of his crimes to the authorities and his loved ones. 

The way the confession saves the soul could hardly be more explicit in “Killers of The Flower Moon.” In fact, the entire last third of the film is devoted to the question of whether Ernst will confess to the authorities and thereby save himself or if he will confess to his wife and thereby save his marriage. We find ourselves desperately hoping — in the way we are taught God hopes — that the hero will confess, just admit what you did so all can be forgiven. 

This confessional attitude makes a movies like “Killers of The Flower Moon” — and previous ones like “The Irishman” — even more profoundly Christian in many ways than movies like “Silence” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.” While “Last Temptation” and “Silence” focused on deconstructing faith through the doubt of the protagonist, “Killers of The Flower Moon” has a focus on deconstructing the protagonist through the justice and grace of God.

It can’t be overstated how important it is to have artists who try to imagine the world in a way that might resemble what Christianity teaches us. One of the reasons so many people fall away from Christianity is that they, like Scorsese, see a tremendous gap between what their faith describes and the life they actually live. It’s one of the reasons why — love him or hate him — Jordan Peterson has become so popular. He connects the teachings of the Bible with psychology and philosophy that people, especially men, relate to.

It’s deeply fitting and gratifying that Scorsese’s career-long struggle with God would lead to possibly his best and most Christian film to date. Hopefully his work will inspire others to wrestle with God and imagine the world as well as he does. 

“Killers of The Flower Moon” is exclusively in theaters on Oct. 20.

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