Why Aren’t We Talking About Robert De Niro’s Best Performance?

In January, Robert De Niro made Academy Awards history by becoming the actor with the longest span between his first and most recent nominations—49 years since winning supporting actor for The Godfather Part II in 1975. Taking over the character of Vito Corleone from Marlon Brando, De Niro also took the torch from him, becoming the most influential actor of his generation, as well as one of the most lauded. His Best Supporting Actor nomination for Killers of the Flower Moon, his eighth as an actor, places him firmly in the Oscars pantheon: Only nine actors in the awards’ nearly 100-year history have more. And yet, as we draw closer to Saturday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards—where, as on Oscars night, he is widely expected to lose to Oppenheimer’s Robert Downey Jr.—it feels as if De Niro’s performance in Killers has almost inexplicably been both overlooked and underanalyzed, as if voters dutifully checked the box beside his name without fully taking in the magnitude of what he accomplished.

It’s not just that De Niro’s turn as William K. Hale, the architect of what became known as the Osage Reign of Terror, is one of his best performances in years, even decades. It’s that, at 80, the veteran actor is doing something genuinely new. One might debate how long it’s been since De Niro was as good as he is here—perhaps as recently as The Irishman in 2019, or Silver Linings Playbook in 2012—but it’s been a long while since he was this surprising.

When Killers of the Flower Moon was still in the script stage, De Niro’s co-star Leonardo DiCaprio argued that the story couldn’t be structured as a mystery because the audience would take one look at De Niro’s Hale and know whodunit. But what’s remarkable about the way De Niro approaches Hale, who may have been responsible for the deaths of as many as two dozen Osage people and the swindling of many more, is how little he signposts his character’s villainy, or sets himself apart from it. He’s a mass murderer you can imagine sitting down to Sunday dinner with, or welcoming into your community, as so many did.

In the David Grann book from which Killers was adapted, Hale, the self-styled “King of the Osage Hills,” is presented as a larger-than-life figure. “Even when he crossed the street,” one investor in Hale’s businesses reports, “he walked as if he were going after something big.” Martin Scorsese’s movie frames him initially like a Western hero. When Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), arrives at his uncle’s Oklahoma mansion, the camera barrels toward De Niro with a sense of purpose that evokes the iconic introduction of John Wayne in Stagecoach. But rather than push in for a star-making close-up, the camera circles around Hale and Ernest’s embrace, taking in the unspoiled landscape around them as Hale says, “Welcome home.” We catch a glimpse of Ernest’s aunt and cousin standing in the doorway, beaming at him, but the camera keeps going until it finds Hale again, as he shifts from making his nephew feel at home to discussing business with his associate, and eventual victim, Henry Roan (William Belleau).

As De Niro switches from English to Osage to issue those (untranslated) instructions to Roan, his voice lowers by a good octave, which throws into sharper relief where that voice is for most of the rest of the movie. As Hale, De Niro is literally working in a different register, pitching his words up to underline the character’s Midwestern charm, his knack for getting others to let their guard down. It’s not a soft voice, or a weak one; its airy lilt conceals the bright gleam of fresh-honed steel. But there’s a kind of ease to it, even when he’s plotting to kill. When Hale convinces Burkhart that he has to poison his own wife, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), in order to protect their family, he does it so gently that his dim-witted nephew seems to think he came up with the idea himself.

Last fall, Scorsese told Entertainment Tonight that even De Niro’s longtime friends had trouble recognizing him in the movie, and while that sounds like a tall tale, there is something disorienting about hearing a sound we’ve never heard before come out of a body that we moviegoers know so well. De Niro has played so many short-tempered thugs that a hint of menace trails him like a wisp of cloud, but in Killers of the Flower Moon, his only moment of physical violence is played for laughs, as he wallops his nephew’s rear with a Masonic paddle until it splinters. Hale’s power is so vast, his immunity from the law so complete (he was, among other things, a deputy sheriff), that he scarcely needs to exert that power at all. When Ernest gushes over dinner that he’s gotten Mollie pregnant, thereby producing a competing heir to his wife’s fortune, all it takes is a frozen glance from his uncle—not a reaction so much as a lack of one—to make the younger man choke on his words. After Ernest is done stammering, Hale does offer his stilted congratulations: “Blessings. Blessings upon this house.” But he rubs his hands together as he does it, one over the other, as if he’s trying to stop himself from balling them into fists.

I’ve thought of the way De Niro says “Blessings” innumerable times since seeing Killers at Cannes last May, more so than any line reading in years. It’s a tender word, full of hope and goodwill, but De Niro’s delivery is so drained of feeling that it conveys its precise opposite, like verbal antimatter. That ability to wrap menace in a cloak of gentility gets to the heart of what makes this not just a great performance but an important one. At Cannes, De Niro cited Hale as an embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, but unlike the nondescript Nazis in The Zone of Interest, William Hale is far from banal. He’s a self-made, self-proclaimed legend given to loquacious turns of phrase that stretch out his time in the spotlight. (At the funeral of Mollie’s sister, he remarks of her husband, “It shows itself to you that Bill Smith didn’t take the proper care of Minnie the way he could have.”) He’s not a cog in the machinery of death; he’s the one who works the levers.

Rather than the banal, De Niro’s Hale embodies what you might call the congeniality of evil, the warm-hearted, good-natured bearing that allows him to act as, and perhaps even believe himself to be, the Osage’s greatest friend, all while scheming to deprive them of their lives and the rights to their oil-rich land. When he dons a pair of big-eyed driving goggles, he’s deliberately made to resemble an owl, which for the Osage is a harbinger of death, and that’s how Hale styles himself: not as a prime mover but as an agent of the inevitable. “I love them,” he tells Ernest, “but in the turning of the earth, they’re gonna go.” Even when Ernest, at Hale’s instruction, starts poisoning his wife’s insulin, Hale tries to convince his nephew that her death is simply part of God’s plan, not his own doing.

For all his scheming, though, Hale is no mastermind. His plans go awry, and his henchmen fumble even the simplest tasks: faking Henry Roan’s suicide with a bullet to the back of the head and forgetting to leave the gun, or using so much dynamite to blow up Bill and Rita Smith’s house that it shatters windows throughout the neighborhood. He’s not a malevolent genius, just a man who knows how to rig the system to his advantage, escaping discovery because he knows that no one will bother to investigate as long as none of his victims are white. And after all, isn’t allowing wealthy, white landowners to act with impunity what the system was set up to do? Despite De Niro’s attempts to connect the two, his beguiling Hale has little in common with the brazen lawbreaking of Donald Trump, but the two share a sense that laws were made for lesser men, and a sense of outrage verging on disbelief when they are finally called to account.

If De Niro manages to make it through awards season without a single major win to his name, it’s partly his own doing. His Best Actor win for Raging Bull gave rise to the idea that roles should be judged on their degree of difficulty. (For his co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, it took diving into frozen rivers, sleeping in animal carcasses, and eating raw bison liver to secure the prize.) De Niro’s refusal to turn William Hale into a cartoon villain, the ghost in an American horror story, may be what has kept him from adding yet another trophy to his shelves. But it’s also what makes the performance impossible to shake—or to distance yourself from. We live in the world that William Hale made, and Killers of the Flower Moon won’t let you forget it.

Art

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