Scorsese, McDermott, and the Thorn in the Heart

In May of 2023, Pope Francis addressed a gathering of Catholic artists—poets, fiction writers, filmmakers, journalists, and critics—from across the globe who had come to Rome for a conference titled “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination.” In his remarks, the Holy Father told the artists, “You are among those who shape our imagination. This is vital.” Art, he said, “is an antidote to the mindset of calculation and standardization; it is a challenge to our imagination, our way of seeing and understanding reality.” He went on to flesh out this notion of the challenges presented by creative work, telling those gathered:

You are . . . the voice of the “restlessness” of the human spirit. . . . Art is the fertile terrain where the “polar oppositions” of reality can be expressed with a language that must be creative, flexible and capable of serving as a vehicle for powerful messages and visions.

He concluded his remarks by encouraging the assembly to “keep helping us to open wide our imagination so that it can transcend our narrow perspectives and be open to the holy mystery of God.”

Among those assembled for the papal address were the American Catholic director Martin Scorsese and novelist Alice McDermott, both of whom spent time at the conference discussing their forthcoming works, which were ultimately released within weeks of each other in October. Both Scorsese’s film Killers of the Flower Moon and McDermott’s novel Absolution are being hailed as masterpieces, and both works reflect many of the themes that Pope Francis touched upon in his address. These artists have long and illustrious track records of popular and critical success—Scorsese, a nine-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) for best director, is widely regarded as America’s greatest living filmmaker; McDermott is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award winner, and belongs on any list of greatest living American Catholic writers—and both are open about the importance of their Catholic upbringing and faith in their work. As such, these two did not necessarily need the Pope’s encouragement to continue producing excellent, challenging art that broadens human understanding of what is possible; this is something they have been doing for decades. And yet, still, it is illuminating to look closely at these two recent releases, to see how they embody the ideas in Pope Francis’s address. Perhaps most dramatically, both Killers of the Flower Moon and Absolution embody the Pope’s claim that “literature is like a thorn in the heart; it moves us to contemplation and sets us on a journey.” Viewers of Scorsese’s film, and readers of McDermott’s book, feel this thorn, and go on this journey. Scorsese and McDermott each have a gift for bringing the audience into the work in ways both immersive and challenging. We leave the film, and close the novel, asking the kinds of significant questions that inspire contemplative reflection, and, ultimately, demand a response.

In this sense, Absolution is a perfect title for McDermott’s novel. In the Catholic sacramental understanding of reconciliation, the forgiveness of sin requires multiple steps: examination of conscience (to recognize one’s sin), confession of sin, expression of contrition, penance, and then, finally, absolution. This final healing comes on the heels of the other steps, and is impossible without them. We cannot be forgiven and reconciled if we do not recognize where we have gone wrong, and taken steps to make amends. In the novel, which focuses primarily on the lives of wives of American military and intelligence officers in the run-up to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, absolution is required for the actions of individuals but also communally, for the actions of those in power.

The novel is structured as a series of letters between Tricia and Rainey, who are writing in the present day, but primarily reflecting on their time in Vietnam in 1963. At that time, Tricia was an idealistic newlywed, accompanying her husband, an engineer turned intelligence officer, to Vietnam, and Rainey was the young daughter of Tricia’s friend Charlene. Unlike Tricia, Charlene was not content to simply be a “helpmeet” to her husband; she saw the suffering of the Vietnamese people and was committed to doing what she could to help alleviate it. For the most part, this involved small-scale schemes, like selling traditional Vietnamese outfits for the newly popular Barbie doll, or having an accomplice steal clothes off the Macy’s loading dock and send the goods to Vietnam, where they could be distributed, along with treats purchased with the proceeds of Saigon Barbie (“small toys and gifts, candies, whiffle balls, little stuffed bears, tins of tea, packs of cigarettes” [77]), to children in hospitals and orphanages.

Tricia is mildly scandalized by Charlene’s actions but agrees to help. She is a committed Catholic, dedicated to the Church’s conception of the “Greater Good”: “preferential treatment for the poor was not a matter of debate, or even nuance, to my mind. It was rather, at that time, both an obligation and an inevitability” (34). This leads her, initially, to acts of service and activism: before going to Vietnam, she spends a year as a kindergarten teacher in Harlem, attends a Catholic Worker protest against air-raid drills, and agrees to go with a friend to join the Freedom Riders in Birmingham, though she is eventually dissuaded from making it all the way to Alabama. Charlene’s schemes are one more way for Tricia to work to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Both Charlene and Tricia know their actions are small and inconsequential when placed against the scale of suffering and violence, but believe it is better to do something rather than nothing.

In one memorable passage—which is the one McDermott chose to read at the conference in Rome—Tricia and Charlene visit the children’s ward at a Saigon hospital, where many of the children are suffering from napalm burns. At the time, though, Tricia does not understand the source of the burns, and wonders if they “were indications of some terrible ritual I didn’t understand. Or even manifestations of a new, unmentioned disease.” She goes on to acknowledge, “I guess you could argue, if you’re so inclined, that I was right on both counts. Metaphorically, anyway” (83). It is this sort of double vision—youthful naivety and the wisdom of age and distance—that makes the book so affecting. As readers, we both share in her experience of encountering suffering without understanding it, and also her more nuanced and sophisticated commentary on these experiences. The scene focuses on one little girl, suffering these burns, who is wailing with an “unrelenting cry of distress, misery, pain” (83). There is, of course, nothing Tricia can do to alleviate this suffering. She wants to avoid the child, does not want to come face to face with this level of agony, but she finally does go to comfort her. She holds the little girl in her arms, and this physical encounter makes a dramatic impression on Tricia:

Holding her in my arms for however long I stood there—not long—I understood that the sound of her cries was only a continuation, a reverberation, of her initial scream, perhaps days or weeks ago, when she felt the first touch of the flame, as if her initial, desperate flight from that pain was somehow coiled still in her thin bones. I become, overwhelmingly, aware of this small body: her bones and tender flesh, her heartbeat, her pulse, and then, somehow, of the bones, the pulse, the heartbeat of those who had brought her into life, who had formed her, as well as bone, flesh, pulse, voice of those who had formed them. And so on (85).

It is significant that this moment of physical communion does not materially change anything. Tricia thinks perhaps the child stops wailing, for a moment, but when she steps back the crying immediately resumes. None of the trinkets they’ve brought will change the circumstances of this girl’s life. The scene ends with the present-day version of Tricia noting that she “can’t say for sure . . . . who was to blame for that anguish” (87). The novel is not particularly interested in assigning blame; surely, McDermott does want the reader to be conscious of the larger socio-political currents that lead to the suffering of innocents, but her primary focus is on the immediate encounter with suffering. She knows that Charlene’s machinations are not going to end poverty or alleviate suffering, any more than holding a sobbing burn victim will cure the child; and yet, still, it is better to acknowledge the suffering, and one’s complicity in it, than to deny its existence, and to overlook the shared humanity of those in pain.

This is but one moment in a novel filled with similar encounters. McDermott weaves suffering throughout Absolution: Buddhist monks immolating themselves in front of the Cambodian embassy. The Freedom Riders. A Vietnamese leper colony. Tricia’s own miscarriage. A hydrocephalic child. An abandoned baby with Down syndrome. Rainey’s husband’s dementia. The loneliness of the elderly who live in Tricia’s assisted-living facility. The world is filled with suffering; how does a good person respond? There is not necessarily a correct answer. At one point, a self-righteous American wife in Vietnam asks Charlene and Tricia, “‘Honestly . . . how much good can we really do here?’” Charlene acknowledges they can do very little. But she presses on, claiming that “That perfectly reasonable impulse to turn away, to gag . . . to close your eyes at the sight of this suffering is, to my mind . . . a kind of evil” (150). One challenge of the book is this demand to face this suffering, to go so far as to take the broken body in hand and hold it, even if it solves nothing.

McDermott’s primary framework for addressing these questions about suffering and obligation (in this book and throughout her oeuvre) is Catholicism, but in Absolution, she includes both Jewish and Buddhist teachings on the subject. One refrain that she weaves throughout the text is the Jewish phrase “tikkun olam,” which means “repair the world” (131); do what good we are able to do, even though things will continue to fall apart and nothing we do will ever be enough to fix it all. When Tricia explains this concept to Charlene, she replies, “The Buddhists say ‘Mend yourself’’ (132). Alongside these injunctions, we are reminded that “self-sacrifice is never really selfless. It’s often quite selfish.” This is the message that dissuades Tricia from finishing the Freedom Ride; she is told that, since she is the sole companion of her widowed father, she is obligated not to put herself in harm’s way: “Each of us is fettered in some way. You are constrained by love and obligation. You are not free” (225). Amidst all these conflicting views it is hard to know what to do and how to do it, and the novel does not offer a readymade solution. Rather, it demands that the reader reflect on the questions. Do not turn away; do not close your eyes to the suffering of others. Absolution can only come about after we acknowledge our sin and work to repair the suffering we have caused.

In a very different way, Scorsese’s movie asks a similar question about how we respond in the face of others’ pain. Scorsese’s focus is not on individuals seeking to do some amount of good in the face of overwhelming suffering; rather, it is on individuals who are causing the suffering, and the indifference of others who could step in to stop it. But Scorsese, like McDermott, does an excellent job of depicting myriad forms of trauma—the thorn in the heart—and asking the audience not to turn away from it.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese, drawing on David Grann’s masterful book of the same name, looks at a series of murders carried out against the members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The Osage had recently become the wealthiest people in America, per capita, after oil was found under their land. The movie centers on the relationship between Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who moves to Osage country to be close to his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro). Hale is a beloved figure in the community, known as a benefactor and supporter of the Osage people, but he is also the movie’s central villain; he is shown orchestrating a series of murders of the Osage in order to claim their “headrights” to the oil that is beneath their land. As part of this scheme, Hale persuades Ernest to woo and marry Molly, so that they can then kill off her extended family, consolidate the oil claims, and then ultimately kill her and inherit the headrights.

Scorsese’s focus here, as in so many of his films, is on people doing clearly evil deeds; Hale is a monster, and Ernest does monstrous things, through a combination of greed and stupidity. He does appear to actually love his wife, but he is easily led, and lacks the strength to resist the influence of his uncle. Just as McDermott presents us with clear character studies, while at the same providing us a broader socio-political context, Scorsese foregrounds the Mollie and Ernest relationship while also depicting the Osage way of life, and the white community’s parasitic relationship to it. We see white shop owners charging the Osage exorbitant prices, and white bankers controlling the outflow of money to the Osage, and of course we see many Osage being murdered, or dying under mysterious circumstances. Early in the film, during a montage of these deaths, we hear Mollie’s voice telling us, repeatedly, that there is “no investigation” into them.

For the viewer, there is no real mystery to the violence. We know the Osage are being systematically murdered for their headrights. We know that Hale is responsible for many, though clearly not all, of these deaths. And we know that the local white authorities have no interest in finding out what is actually happening. When the FBI does finally arrive on the scene, more than halfway through the movie, it does not take them long to solve the crimes. Scorsese handles this beautifully; initially, we see the FBI agents being stymied and resisted, and the audience fears justice might be eluded, or at least delayed. But then in one nighttime scene, we see that the FBI actually has a wide net of informants and investigators in place, and they have managed to identify all aspects of the conspiracy. It was relatively easy to do, since Hale and his accomplices had not been terribly careful or discreet. They acted under the assumption that there would be no real consequences for murdering indigenous people, and if anyone was to be brought to justice it would primarily be the low-life criminals who carried out the murders, not an upstanding citizen like ‘King’ Hale.

This is one theme of the movie—evil thrives when no one resists it. Weak-willed people, like Ernest, will go along with stronger ones. Scorsese says, for him, the key question of the film is, “What is our flaw in our own human nature, that makes us take advantage of others?” As a Catholic, he knows that it comes back to our sinful, fallen nature. This is one reason the decision to center the Ernest Molly relationship is a brilliant one, because it shows how one can both love and yet still act abhorrently. Ernest says early in the film he loves “women and money,” and everything he subsequently does in the movie can be attributed to either side of this duality. Throughout the film, we convincingly see Mollie and Ernest falling in love; he acts tenderly and affectionately toward her, and she, while recognizing that he is initially attracted to her for her wealth, finds him charming and funny and beautiful. She repeatedly calls him a coyote, a trickster, but fails to recognize the full extent of his depravity. She has diabetes, and (wisely) distrusts the white doctors who are caring for her; she insists that Ernest be the one to administer her insulin shots. But Hale instructs Ernest to add something to the medicine, telling him it will “slow her down,” when in fact it is poisoning and killing her. Ernest, seeing her health fail, is distraught, but continues to administer the tainted medicine. Love alone is not proof against sin.

At the Rome conference, shortly after the Pope’s remarks, Scorsese sat down with the Jesuit journalist Antonio Spadaro to answer some questions about his faith and his filmmaking. In his responses, he emphasized the importance of his Catholicism in the way he sees and understands the world. He talked about the need to see Christ not just in church but out in the streets, in the broken bodies of the suffering. He also said that he felt violence was “in our human nature” and to “deny that is to prolong a bad reckoning” with it. This, perhaps, could serve as an encapsulation of the central theme of Killers of the Flower Moon. At one point, the film explicitly ties the Osage murders to the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, demonstrating a pattern of white violence against prosperous and independent minority communities. The film shows that if we deny that this kind of violence is part, not only of human nature, but of the nature of our country, we will not reckon with it. Here we should go back to the steps for Penance—identifying and acknowledging the wrong, and seeking to make amends, are required before absolution. We cannot pretend we are better than we are or wish that certain defining aspects of our nature were simply not present. If we do not think we are sinful, we will not seek to stop sinning. In Ernest’s last scene with Mollie, after he has confessed to his role in the murders and the plot to seize the headrights, she directly asks him what was in the shots he was administering to her. She already knows that he was poisoning her; she wants him to admit his responsibility. He is unwilling to acknowledge, perhaps even to himself, his actual culpability, and insists it was only insulin. The individual’s failure to take ownership over their violent, sinful nature mirrors that of the broader society.

Shortly after this scene, the movie pivots to a frame narrative. In order to fill the audience in on what happened to the characters in real life, Scorsese shows us the recording of a live radio dramatization of the events we have just witnessed, with an all-white cast (and audience). This is yet another piece of true-to-life filmmaking; there really was just such a radio play—an episode of “The Lucky Strike Hour,” from 1933—approved by the FBI, which was happy to support a glamorized version of the heroic work done by their agents in finding the killers. The dramatization ends with performers reading us the fates of Ernest and Hale (neither of whom suffered the severe consequences one might hope); then Scorsese himself steps up to the microphone to read out Mollie Burkhart’s obituary. We learn she eventually succumbed to diabetes at a relatively young age; the final words of the film are that the obituary makes “no mention of the murders.” Scorsese then closes the film with an overhead shot of Osage dancers whirling in a beautifully choreographed circle. The juxtaposition leaves the audience shaken and moved. It draws our attention to the ways that history all too often erases or glosses over trauma and collective guilt. It also makes us conscious of the role of storytelling and artistic expression in this process.

Pope Francis told the Catholic writers gathered in Rome that “artistic inspiration is not only consoling but also disquieting since it presents both the beautiful and the tragic realities of life”; it is this juxtaposition of the beautiful and the tragic that we find in both Absolution and Killers of the Flower Moon. Both works focus on historical instances of intercultural conflict, and show how these conflicts continue to resonate in the contemporary moment. Both feature violence and suffering, the “thorn in the heart” that Pope Francis speaks of, and both “inspire contemplation”—they demand that the audience reflect on weighty and perhaps unanswerable questions about guilt and what we owe to others, and how we can make amends for the wrongs we have done, individually and as a society. As such, both works are exemplary representatives of the aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was supported by a travel grant from the Conference on Christianity and Literature, and by Georgetown University's Office of Mission and Ministry.

Featured Image: screenshot from Killers of the Flower Moon, Fair Use. 


Michael O'Connell

Michael O’Connell is the author of Startling Figures: Encounters with American Catholic Fiction, editor of Conversations with George Saunders, and the co-editor of The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies.  

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