There are certain cinematic pairings that just feel right; the whimsical and the macabre of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, the ratatat of dialogue created by Quentin Tarantino for Samuel L. Jackson, the chemistry between the Coen Brothers and Frances McDormand, and of course the transformative effect that Martin Scorsese has had on Leonardo DiCaprio.
The latter duo are once gain reuniting for a sixth time for a true-crime account of a series of murders in Oklahoma in the 1920s which targeted members of the Osage nation — who discovered oil underneath their land — and subsequently became one of the FBI’s first major homicide investigations.
Additionally, they have the long-gestating film adaption of the book, The Devil in the White City, which tells the true story of H.H. Holmes, a charismatic doctor and serial killer who lured victims to his house during the construction of Chicago's World's Fair in 1893.
Needless to say, Scorsese and DiCaprio continue to demonstrate that their partnership is not only mutually beneficial, but provides cinephiles everywhere with a combination that both entertains and educates.
With five films already etched in the minds of many, we can't help but examine which is the shining example of their partnership.
Prior to The Departed, Martin Scorsese's best known works in the gangster genre were Goodfellas and Casino where the points of view of the characters came from those with an overall lawless attitude as it related to the criminal justice system.
What's particularly brilliant about the film that scored him his first Oscar is that he never abandoned those sensibilities. Instead, he infused that line-of-thinking into characters portrayed by DiCaprio and Matt Damon who both understood that policing a city like Boston required a gangster's mentality.
But what could have been a straightforward narrative becomes something truly special as we see the already blurred lines between turncoat and loyal soldier become even more murky as DiCaprio and Damon both sought out the validation of Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello — who he himself was also fostering a deep dark secret.
With most Scorsese films, we have an impression that with every great ascent, there is also a great fall. The Departed is different because we see the disintegration of every level. There is no great winner or loser. By the end of the film, the police are no worse than the gangsters and the gangster's code of omertà is a fallacy.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese has a way of taking someone who may have never indulged in a single illicit substance and making them feel the urges, happiness, anxiety and tremors associated with being high. This was particularly on display in the last third of Goodfellas when Ray Liotta is unsure if a helicopter is following him and the amount of intoxicants in his body could have killed a small elephant.
Imagine a scenario where the aforementioned feelings in that sequence are prolonged from 30 minutes to three hours and you have The Wolf of Wall Street — a film that takes debauchery and self-indulgence to new heights.
Many critics of the film felt that the story — which centered on a thieving stock broker turned mogul — glamorized a financial criminal that had more in common with Bernia Madoff than Jay Gatsby. But was perhaps lost on these individuals is the fact that illuminating what happened isn't necessarily the same thing as condoning it.
Jordan Belfort isn't a wolf in a sheep's clothing, he's a wildebeest in a $3,000 USD suit. To Scorsese's credit, the repeated instances of showcasing him championing greed and excess illustrate a point that some people never change — even if that's how we've been indoctrinated to examine films that follow a three-act structure.
Gangs of New York
The first cinematic union between Scorsese and DiCaprio is often overlooked by audiences because they couldn't help but absorb every second of the cyanide-laced charm that Daniel Day-Lewis was emoting as Bill the Butcher — mixing humor in the same breath as murderous threats.
DiCaprio was in a rough patch as an actor during this time. While he had still managed enough goodwill thanks to his performance at the box office monster, Titanic, his post-James Cameron track record had been particularly abysmal with critics - landing a Razzie win for The Man in the Iron Mask and another nomination for The Beach.
Gangs of New York had the potential to completely derail his career. And since Scorsese and Day-Lewis were on board — and had secured the largest proaction budget the director ever had — it wasn't the type of film that would simply be swept under the rug if a studio thought it was bad.
Scorsese used DiCaprio's character as a vessel to transport the audience — who may not have been aware of the United States's troubled history in between the Revolutionary War and Civil War — to a time in New York where blood and horseshit sullied a person's boots.
DiCaprio excelled in the role of Amsterdam. We know that he's blinded by rage, but the charisma of Bill the Butcher slowly takes that hardened facade and tenderizes it. Of course, the fun of it all is trying to decipher who is playing who, and whether love, admiration and respect can live alongside hatred.
In other Scorsese films which center on violence like Goodfellas and Raging Bull, we see characters attempting to live dual lives where one clean hand washes the other laden with blood. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese and his characters finally "leave the blood on."
As he noted, "In this movie, I wanted to create another world, one that's very primitive. A lot of the violence is actually implied through editing, because ultimately, that world is violent in such a way that it's everyday violence. You become numb to it."
In recent memory we think of Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street as the perfect representation of how money, power and vice can transform a man into a monster. However, it was his portrayal in The Aviator of real life Texas tycoon, Howard Hughes, which ultimately laid the groundwork for the elevated performance almost a decade later.
Scorsese has made a career out of transporting the viewer to a different time and place. Whereas some auteurs focus on otherworldly settings or the expanse of space, he uses time to take us to bygone eras where everything was bigger and more robust.
The film follows a similar trajectory and structure as other notable Scorsese films like Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino where we understand just how sweet life is for the main character, before ultimately everything erodes and empires are reduced to rubble.
Although the aforementioned metaphor definitely relates to Hughes' descent into a germaphobic bubble where the fruits of his labor have become triggers for his unhappiness, the physical destruction that Scorsese achieves in this film — in the form of an epic plane crash in Beverly Hills — is amongst his most notable action sequences in his storied career.
If anything failed to register with the movie-going public, it was the attention that Scorsese paid to Hughes' love life. While it was nice to see interpretations of starlets of the era like Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Jean Harlow, they seemed more like plot devices which sparked his idiosyncrasies than the living/breathing women that they were.
In Shutter Island, U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at isolated parcel of land off of Boston to investigate the disappearance of a child murderer.
Given the Alcatraz-esque qualities of the prison, we the viewer can't help but think that their presence will only turn up a bloated corpse of an inmate who had tried to escape and they will soon return to the mainland.
With a hurricane fast approaching, the ominous feeling that place eventually always trumps over people creates a terrible feeling of dread for all the characters involved.
As an auteur, Scorsese is on top of his game in Shutter Island — layering film noir elements on top of horror tropes — which makes for a thrilling ride which feels like if Chinatown was told as a ghost story. There are even overt homages to noir films like a shower scene in Psycho and man attempting to overcome his terrain like in Vertigo and North by Northwest.
That isn't to say that Leonardo DiCaprio mailed it in as Teddy Daniels. Rather, it felt like the rare occasion when you saw the actor portraying a character rather than being immersed in his performance. This is particularly important because the character of Teddy Daniels has to slowly unravel to reveal the shocking realization which centers on identity. Because it's only ever Leonardo DiCaprio that we see on screen, the resolution — while surprising — wasn't a transformative experience.