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William King Hale may just be the most wicked character Robert De Niro has played, and that’s saying something.

Sure, 2023 had no shortage of terrifying movie villains. The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” tortures animals and sees himself as a god. The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) from “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” threatens the fabric of the Multiverse. Many villains have grand, reality-altering machinations, but there’s nothing more sinister than the real-life implications of what someone like Hale (De Niro) represents.

In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Hale offers a veneer of nicety, befriending the Osage people. But beneath that lies a man interested in profiting off their genocide. He plots the deaths of many high-profile Osage to acquire their oil head rights. He’s the one who tells Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) to poison Mollie (Lily Gladstone). What’s most terrifying about Hale is that he is a real person. The things he did in the movie aren’t exaggerated, and yet, he was merely one figure in a larger plan to disenfranchise and eradicate Indigenous communities.

More fantastical villains can certainly symbolize real-world evil. In the film, Hale serves as a figurehead for everything the United States has done to strip Indigenous people of land, access, and power. Even when the Osage got ahead just a little bit by striking oil on their land, white people came slinking back to take it for themselves. De Niro brings pure terror to Hale, to the point where even when he’s acting nice, something isn’t quite right. -Mike Bedard

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