If there’s one unifying element to Martin Scorsese’s films, it’s alienation. Specifically, the alienation of his male protagonists: whether successes (Howard Hughes in The Aviator, Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, or Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Casino), failures (Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, Frank Pierce in Bringing Out the Dead, and Charlie and Johnny Boy in Mean Streets), or just outright sociopaths (Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Sam Bowden in Cape Fear, and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York).
These men live extreme lives on the far-end edges of society: whether famous billionaires, violent gangsters, manic ambulance drivers, murderous nighttime taxi drivers, or delusional losers, none of them could be considered “ordinary” people. But Scorsese knows that filmgoers aren’t interested in following Norm from Accounting as he goes to his 9-to-5 job, drives home, has a quiet dinner with his family, and goes to bed at 10. Even in the one movie he does follow a regular office drone it’s as he’s plunged into a long, bizarre night in New York City in After Hours.
Instead, by examining those who live extreme lives on the fringe, Scorsese is able to comment upon social norms from the outside in. Jordan Belfort is a drug-using, adulterous, immoral stockbroker who nonetheless made hundreds of millions by playing a crooked game on the stock market. What does this say about our capitalistic system and how it relates to our American ideals? In Goodfellas, Scorsese portrays the life of a gangster as one of excitement and easy money–or at least that’s what he leads the audience to believe through flashy cinematography and exciting editing. But scraping a little beneath its shiny surface, the lives of these characters are desperate; they’re barely literate violent people who would just as easily kill their friends as they would burn down a business for the insurance money.
It’s a trick Scorsese consistently pulls off throughout his filmography: like sleight-of-hand, Scorsese leads his audience to believe a film is about one thing, only to pull the rug out from under them halfway through and show the ugly truth of the characters and what they represent.
But it’s not just how he manipulates the audience through characterization: Scorsese is also a gifted filmmaker with an eye for detail and striking images that transmit to audiences a complex set of attitudes and emotions.
Moralistic without ever being preachy or didactic, Scorsese uses graphic violence in his films what at first seems like for shallow titillation but actually serves the purpose of illustrating how ugly such acts, and by extension the people that perpetrate them, are. Although Scorsese depicts these acts with style, they aren’t to be idealized; by framing such acts in an attractive aesthetic, Scorsese attempts to depict how the characters on-screen view such acts; Goodfellas is told from Henry Hill’s perspective, after all, just as Taxi Driver is told from Travis Bickle’s perspective and Casino is told from the various characters’ perspectives. They would romanticize their horrifying deeds. Even Jordan Belfort, who doesn’t enact much violence (except near the end towards his wife) lives a completely despicable life but it’s portrayed as the height of success and glamour.
Even The Age of Innocence–a sort of outlier in Scorsese’s oeuvre, which depicts an upper-class society man who loves one woman but marries another–continues this theme: Newland Archer lives his entire life marrying and having a family with one woman, only to spend much of it conflicted by his feelings for one woman and sense of responsibility to another. In Scorsese’s films, his characters are consistently torn between two ideas of the world: the ideal one they think they live and try to convince themselves (and the audience) is the truth and the flawed reality as it actually is.
Maybe this is what resonates in audiences of Scorsese’s works: although the great majority of his audience aren’t thuggish gangsters or multi-millionaires or psychopaths on the edge, they recognize–and even enjoy–the fantasy the first half of his films often detail and also enjoy/sympathize with these extreme characters’ inevitable downfalls. Such is the “Scorsese formula”: build a character up in the beginning with all-rising action and glamorizing his protagonist’s lives, and then halfway through the barrel of the story goes over the falls until crashing into the denouement.
Of course, besides story Scorsese creates films that crackle with a wiry energy. Some of his best films proceed as if in flashes, thanks to his longtime editor the gifted Thelma Schoonmaker. From the kinetic boxing rounds of Raging Bull to the first half of Goodfellas that depicts Henry Hill’s life story seamlessly and without a moment to breathe to the manic always-rising action in The Wolf of Wall Street that follows as Belfort rises up and up to always greater heights, Scorsese structures his films so the first half speeds along with the audience entranced by its hypnotic rhythm, with tracking shots and quick cuts mixed together to keep the frame in constant motion. Matched with impeccable cinematography that gives his films a high-gloss, sharp sheen, watching a Scorsese film is never boring or unattractive.
Which gives the eventual blood, violence, or tragedy that inevitably follows in the second half its impact. Usually slowing down the pacing in the second half of his films, here is where Scorsese takes some time for both the characters and the audience to contemplate what they had enacted and witnessed in the first half. This is also the part of the movie where the protagonist–who was usually living some version of their ideal life–begins to either realize they are in trouble or begin to experience the ramifications of their actions in the first half. Often Scorsese will give a few scenes of the protagonist lamenting their situation or feeling regretful of their actions (although “regret” is a little much to ask of Scorsese’s characters–more like regretful that they have either been caught or have failed in one way or another).
Finally, a mad rush of activity will build up and serve as the denouement. Either a last flurry of activity (in Goodfellas it’s the fateful, cocaine-fuelled day before Hill is taken down by the Feds; in Taxi Driver, it’s Bickle going on his massacre; in The Aviator it’s Hughes testifying before Congress and finally getting The Hercules into the air) or else a fateful event the film had been building towards (in Gangs of New York it’s the giant brawl between Cutter’s gang and the immigrants; in Bringing Out the Dead it’s Frank’s mental health finally deteriorating and saving his first patient in months; in The King of Comedy it’s Pupkin finally gets his moment in the spotlight; in Shutter Island it’s Laeddis finally snapping out of his delusion and realizing what he’s done).
And then finally the epilogue: usually placed some time after the action, Scorsese seems obsessed with providing this sort of conclusiveness for his audience to observe. Perhaps it’s because he’s so meticulously structured the morality of his universe in his films, he finds it only appropriate for the viewer to see where the characters they have been following through the entire movie have ultimately ended up.
While this could all be read as standard story structure, it’s the type of characters and materials Scorsese depicts in this structure that make it unique: even villains are awarded conclusions that don’t end with their death (a radical departure from most of film history, where it was codified that villains die at the end or end in prison). Alternately, relatively decent-enough people (and of course, the King of Kings in The Last Temptation of Christ) end up usually worse for the wear. Howard Hughes concludes his story by repeating “the way of the future,” seemingly stuck in an endless loop due to his OCD; Frank in Bringing Out the Dead releases a patient from his agony to death and the film ends with him ambiguously with a drug-using woman he’s fallen for; Billy Costigan is dead by the end of The Departed and quickly erased from his work for the police; Paul Hackett in After Hours ends up just where he began, a bewildering night in the city seemingly pointlessly harrowing for him. And, well, we know what happens at the end of The Last Temptation of Christ.
This is Scorsese up and down, though: he subverts expectations while making his films with machine-like tics, rhythms, and precision. He may work a formula, but inside the formula he enjoys throwing in unexpected hiccups and apply a gray morality to both his heroes and villains alike. We enjoy his films because we think we know what to expect, especially when the viewer becomes familiar with Scorsese’s visual grammar–but he still throws us for a loop every time because he plays a little jazz in the formula.
Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street shouldn’t be as funny as they are, but they’re still surprisingly funny movies despite the awful people and acts it depicts. Alternately, After Hours, The King of Comedy, and Bringing Out the Dead should be much funnier and less disturbing than they turn out to be. Making the horrific amusing and vice versa is just another sleight-of-hand trick the master filmmaker pulls on his audience time and time again.
Now entering his 50th year as a filmmaker, Scorsese is still making his signature films to appreciative audiences, influencing generations of directors along the way. His place is secure in the annals of film history as one of the greatest directors of all time–one that made films for adults and about serious, disturbing issues and behaviors that exist in our society. Perhaps this is his greatest achievement: although his films are slick and high-end productions, his characters are often the dregs of society.
He puts a layer of gloss on these cheats, criminals, killers, and madmen to make our confrontation of them easier to watch. But he never glosses over their retched nature and doesn’t spare the audience of the blood and wreckage left in their wake. Scorsese just makes what he chooses to depict easier to watch—but only the surface.