Robert De Niro Got His Ninth Nomination For Playing Killers of the Flower Moon ’s Historical Villain. Here’s the Scorsese Villain Role He Should Have Won For

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There is no shortage of Oscar excellence in Killers of the Flower Moon: Lily Gladstone should win. Rodrigo Prieto should win in cinematography. That Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese’s screenplay— adapted from David Grann’s book and its impossible blend of the exhaustive and the thrilling and the depressingly-relevant—wasn’t nominated is already one of this year’s Oscar bungles.

For the first part of the film, Robert De Niro’s William King Hale moves like a Renaissance version of Satan. He suggests, provides, and translates, but never quite executes anything himself. He wants to kill the Osage people but he himself wants to remain clean as a ghost. And then he turns into an American devil: paddling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest in a Masonic temple after he botches a murder, demanding Ernest poison his wife, and speaking the darkest truths about America’s unique blend of violence, amnesia and ease: “People forget. They don’t remember. They don’t care. They just don’t care.” With his spectacles and his suit, De Niro looks little like the classic American monster as speculator, something like the villainous Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Except De Niro’s Hale doesn’t want to own a town. He wants to destroy an entire people.

De Niro’s other great villain performance is almost a photo negative of Hale. In Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, De Niro’s Max Cady is relentless, mad, and terrifyingly violent. From his first moment on screen, we see a red-hot monster, who stood out sharply in what was an age of cold, surgical villains like Hans Gruber and Hannibal Lecter (the character that won Anthony Hopkins the Oscar at the 1992 ceremony.) Cady turns prison into a chamber of high learning and physical transformations: crude tattoos, triceps like ship’s cables, ancient philosophy. Rural, poor, grotesque, and violent, Cady is the cracker from hell, a revenant come to tear down the hopeful veneer of the ‘90s New South. Cape Fear suggests that just outside the boom towns of Charlotte and Atlanta lurked rural monstrosities like DeNiro’s Cady, and no glittering new airports nor “too busy to hate” slogans could stop them.

It’s also the most Pacino performance that De Niro has ever given: all bug eyes and canine fury and monologues dripping with Old Testament acid and self-help phrases. Like all iconic Hollywood villains, De Niro’s Cady rides the edge between pyrotechnic, drippy high camp and a genuinely disturbing exploration of social wounds. It’s also interesting that in both Killers and Cape Fear, two archetypal New Yorkers, DeNiro and Scorsese, created two Oscar-nominated visions of flyover country villainy. Maybe for then, a special kind of darkness starts west of the Hudson.

As we begin our final approach to the 2024 Oscars, we're taking one more look back at the films and performances that blew our minds last year—and looking even further back, to spotlight earlier Oscar-worthy work from the filmographies of this year's nominees.

She won for a comedic performance tonight—but her breakthrough performance deserved it, too.

Originally Appeared on GQ