Leonardo DiCaprio became a phenomenon in 1997 screaming, “I’m the king of the world.” That oft-mocked line from Titanic followed DiCaprio throughout much of his subsequent career. Sure, when Jack (via James Cameron) coined that phrase, he was just a carefree youngster marveling at the good luck that landed him on the ship of dreams. But in the years to come, DiCaprio would play many men who actually do achieve something like king-of-the-world status, even if it’s a prelude to their (usually) catastrophic downfalls.
Things have changed, though. Recently—and especially in Killers of the Flower Moon, DiCaprio’s sixth collaboration with Martin Scorsese—he’s moved away from these kinds of roles. And, frankly, it’s an exciting time. Leo is doing some of the finest work of his career playing fools and schmucks, the kind of guys no one would ever mistake for being genuinely awesome.
The age of Leo-as-loser started in earnest with his work in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Following his biggest professional success to date—a Best Actor Oscar win for 2015’s The Revenant—DiCaprio took a four-year break, then re-emerged to tell a story about failure. DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton worries that he’s a has-been, but he’s really an almost-was. Sure, he was the star of a Western TV series called Bounty Law for five years, but he’s more defined by the parts he didn’t get—like the lead in The Great Escape, which he lost to Steve McQueen.
Dalton keeps telling himself he’s “Rick fuckin’ Dalton,” but he lives with rejection hanging over his head. In what’s arguably the best scene in the movie, he berates himself in his dressing room after repeatedly blowing his lines on the set of the TV show where he’s playing a villain-of-the-week. The tantrum is pitiful. He calls himself a “fucking miserable drunk,” and bemoans the “eight goddamn fucking whiskey sours” he had the night before. It’s a man at his absolute lowest who knows he’s a piece of shit.
The moment also felt like a turn for DiCaprio. His characters have reached low points before, typically from hubris, but they’ve never been quite so aware of their failures. The promise of returning to their former glory always sustained them. Rick Dalton’s glory was always minor. Even the last act– in which Dalton, now a spaghetti-Western star, returns home to Los Angeles, and dispatches the Manson family before being invited up to Sharon Tate’s house—offers an uncertain picture of Rick’s triumph. Maybe he goes on to get cast in a Polanski movie, and maybe that night is as good as his life will ever get.
Before his solemn turn in The Revenant, DiCaprio had been on a run of playing doomed titans. In 2013, he starred in both The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street, respectively playing literary icon Jay Gatsby and disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort. Gatsby and Belfort are, if nothing else, smooth operators, and DiCaprio tackles them with a twinkle in his eye. While Gatsby is mysterious and Belfort is a little stinker, DiCaprio leans hard into their charm. Both characters throw the sickest parties ever and lord over them like bacchanalian gods.
The biggest criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street was that Scorsese and DiCaprio weren’t hard enough on Belfort, that an uncritical eye could still read him, despite it all, as a Dude Who Rocks. Both Gatsby and Belfort obtain their wealth and status through nefarious means, but they’re also cool. And this is a mode in which DiCaprio is extremely comfortable. It’s one he deploys in Catch Me If You Can, way back in 2002—the first post-Titanic movie to really test what he could do. There he plays con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., who uses his boyish good looks and gift for sweet-talk to cash forged checks and pose as a doctor or an airline pilot.
Time and time again, DiCaprio has played guys who experience monumental highs and even greater lows. The lows were what made the work dramatically stirring, but having been one of the most-desired celebrities who ever lived, he could also channel the feeling of having the world at your feet, only to lose it all. As Howard Hughes in 2004’s The Aviator, his second collaboration with Scorsese, he starts out palling around with movie stars and ends up an emaciated recluse peeing into jars in his screening room. Frank is finally caught, the feds catch up to Belfort, and Gatsby is shot by his pool. And yet at certain points in all of these films, these guys are living out some sort of dream.
Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon never does that. From the outset, it’s clear he’s pretty dumb, and people around him treat him as such. In the very first scene they share, Ernest’s uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), repeats questions to emphasize how slow on the uptake Ernest is. This is a grim movie about the systematic genocide of the Osage people, but there’s a pitch-black humor to the way Hale and his lackeys berate Ernest throughout the film. The character has all the greed and ambition of a Gatsby or a Belfort, but none of the savvy, and DiCaprio, with his mouth near-permanently downturned, leans into Ernest’s confusion and his worthlessness. He plays the fool extremely well, and it’s to the movie’s benefit—for this story to work, you have to believe that Ernest is dim enough to convince himself he still loves his wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone) even as he orchestrates the murder of her family members. In turn, Mollie seems to love him because of his naivete.
Ernest and Rick feel like echoes of one another. They’re both trying to emulate others they perceive as successes; they’re both their own worst enemies. (In between these movies, DiCaprio played an astronomer in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, channeling his earnest passion for the environment into a self-deprecating performance as a nerd who everyone ignores.) In both parts, you can see DiCaprio wrestling with the limits of being Leonardo DiCaprio. For years, no matter how hard he tried to subvert it in his work, DiCaprio was defined by his beauty—as tragic as they are, Gatsby and Belfort are still desirable. Now, at 48– past the point where he can play with a Super Soaker in public without looking goofy—he’s embracing the character actor he’s clearly always longed to be, exploring what it feels like to get older and feel unwanted, allowing himself to be a punching bag, fully debasing himself and his image to the needs of the film he’s in. It’s utterly captivating.