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Martin Scorsese makes Hollywood's most powerful movies about loneliness

From Taxi Driver to the new Silence, the director’s films are obsessed with isolation.

Andrew Garfield in Martin Scorsese’s Silence

In many ways, it’s hard to pin down Marin Scorsese as a filmmaker. Thanks to his work on movies like Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, he’s probably most commonly thought of as a maker of crime films, but he’s a virtuoso who’s worked in a variety of genres and covered a wide range of topics, eras, and characters types, from Howard Hughes to the Dalai Lama.

Yet what connects nearly every film he’s worked on is an unshakeable feeling of alienation and self-doubt. His movies are about men searching for certainty from others and from themselves—a certainty that almost never arrives.

So perhaps the best way to define the director is this: Scorsese is cinema's most powerful filmmaker about loneliness.

Scorsese’s latest, Silence, evokes the feeling of intense isolation

Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, is the tale of a priest who is forced to question everything he believes and everyone he knows, most especially himself. The movie follows a pair of young Jesuits named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who venture to feudal Japan after hearing rumors that Father Ferreira, a fellow Jesuit and beloved teacher and mentor, had disavowed the faith under pressure from local authorities hostile to the church.

For Scorsese, who as a young man intended to become a priest himself, Silence is obviously an intensely personal project, and at times strikingly intimate. Scorsese, always a keen visualist, layers his imagery with mood and meaning, shrouding the Japanese countryside in mist, mystery, and uncertainty, mirroring Rodrigues’s often clouded mental state. The priest’s thoughts are relayed through hauntingly whispered voiceovers that have as much solidity as the clouds around him. It is a film that gets inside its protagonist’s head in order to distance him from those around him, and to convey that distance to the viewer. Like so many of Scorsese’s protagonists, Rodrigues is ultimately a man alone.

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence
Adam Driver (Garupe) and Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues) in Silence.

Silence is probably as close to a buddy movie as Scorsese has ever made—it’s about two young men, closely linked by faith and purpose, who journey to a foreign land on a dangerous mission. Yet ultimately the relationship of the central pair is defined by a breakdown in trust. Midway through the movie, Rodrigues and Garupe split up, in part because Garupe believes their presence results in Japanese authorities persecuting the Christians in the local villages. In Scorsese’s frighteningly uncertain world, where no one can ever really know someone else’s mind, even this most intense of human unions is doomed by disagreement and disunity.

Eventually, Rodrigues encounters Ferreira (Liam Neeson), but the old priest has changed his name, and now disavows the church. He pushes Rodrigues to do the same. Ferreira seems both reluctant about his new life and also committed to it. The surface drama is about whether Rodrigues too will turn on his faith, but the deeper tension comes from his inability to gauge the veracity of Ferreira’s transformation: Is it a put-on? A deep conviction? Or something else? As much as he tries, Rodrigues can never truly know Ferreira, and that inability to connect with another man so much like himself deepens the depth and anguish of his own self-doubt.

Silence, then, is a movie about the feeling of intense and intractable isolation, about being locked in the cold prison of the self. It is at times a punishingly violent movie, but its discomforts are more psychological than physical, because it has the effect of transferring that same feeling of doubt and isolation onto the viewer.

Isolation and its explosive effects are a recurring theme throughout Scorsese’s filmography

This is a significant part of Scorsese’s power as a filmmaker: The idea that loneliness and paranoia are inevitable and inescapable parts of human existence lurks in the background of nearly every film that Scorsese has made, and often it is front and center.

The Aviator was as much about Howard Hughes’ descent into germophobe isolation as it was about his industrialist genius. Shutter Island and Cape Fear are both twisted fantasias about obsession, violence, and self-knowledge. Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are fundamentally stories about emotionally isolated men who fail to connect with those around them, and the violent consequences of that failure. Taxi Driver famously ends with its protagonist going on a murder spree in order to liberate a young prostitute, and The King of Comedy, which tracks a deranged autograph fanatic’s growing and dangerous obsession with a famous comedian, follows a similar thematic trajectory as the main character eventually kidnaps the comedian.

Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a Scorsese character whose isolation has violent consequences.
Sony Pictures

Even in films about people who are nominally embedded in some tightly knit social group, trust is always a struggle. Casino and Goodfellas show how criminal businesses that operate like families eventually fall apart as trust breaks down between individuals. And while The Wolf of Wall Street is about a group of schemers who make a killing on sketchy financial schemes, in the end it totally isolates its central sleazy financial baron played by Leonardo Di Caprio.

These aren’t just stories about violence and distrust; they are stories about the decay of a social fabric, in which isolation explodes in unpredictable ways. Scorsese’s characters are always trying to reach out to engage with something or someone beyond themselves, and facing rejection, reacting by making drastic and anti-social choices that destroy their own worlds.

You can see these ideas at play in many of Scorsese’s most famous scenes. The drama from the “funny how” bit in Goodfellas stems from an uncertainty about whether Joe Pesci’s character — a gangster known for violent outbursts — is kidding or whether he is enraged. Even within the pack, they can never really know each other. In Taxi Driver, when Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle stares at himself in the mirror muttering, “You talkin’ to me? Cause there’s no one else here,” it’s a powerful dramatization not only of social isolation, but of self-interrogation. Like Rodrigues in Silence, Bickle is a man whose identity is uncertain even to himself.

Scorsese’s ability to not only portray that feeling in his characters but to convey it to the audience — to make you, the viewer, feel as isolated and uncertain as the character — is one of the reasons why he has been so successful, and why his movies have had such staying power. His movies can be deeply unsettling, but in an important way they are also reassuring. That’s because they capture loneliness and alienation in ways that reflect deep emotional truths. By reflecting a deep sense of individual isolation so well, he allows those who might feel that way to know that they are not alone. Which means that ultimately his powerful portrayal of disconnection is why his movies so frequently connect.

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