Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Eric Roth (screenplay), David Grann (book)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser
Producers: Dan Friedkin, Daniel Lupi, Martin Scorsese, Bradley Thomas
Music: Robbie Robertson
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Running time: 216mins
What’s the story: Osage County, Oklahoma, the 1920s. WW1 veteran Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) is persuaded by his uncle William Hale (De Niro) to marry the Native American woman Mollie (Gladstone). If Mollie dies, Ernest and his children will inherit lucrative oil rights on Mollie’s land…
What’s the verdict: Now an octogenarian, Martin Scorsese could be forgiven for slowing down. But no. Killers of the Flower Moon may arrive four years after The Irishman, but that’s largely because COVID put the brakes on this three-and-a-half-hour epic follow-up to his three-and-a-half-hour epic. If the final stage of Scorsese’s career sees him deliver movies with durations that would make superhero films blush, let’s be thankful. He knows how to use an extended run time to do more than stuff in scenes that set up a six-part spin-off series.
Those who found The Irishman a sombre affair will find no comfort in Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese may be making epics, but these are gloomy tales of dismal periods in America’s history. This latest movie focusses on the callous, inevitable, and casually genocidal spate of murders that befell Osage Native Americans when striking oil in the 1920s. After being forced onto land the authorities believed to be worthless, ruined soil.
No mystery surrounds who is behind the killings. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth reveal early on this is the brainchild of De Niro’s terrifying, mob boss-like rancher William Hale. Hale works with the local white community on a campaign of killings to get oil land headrights. Or custody of Osage children who will inherit the rights. Sometimes the murders are half-heartedly made to resemble suicides, more often not.
Originally, mystery was intended. The original script followed the structure of David Grann’s source book, recounting the investigation of Tom White, an agent for an embryonic FBI. Acknowledging the risk of slipping into White Saviour narrative, Scorsese and Roth refocused the story onto the Osage and the vultures circling them. This means Leonardo DiCaprio forewent the role of White in favour of the more difficult Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew, and husband to Gladstone’s Osage woman, Mollie. With Mollie diabetic and in failing health, Hale sees her as easy money once she is wed to Ernest. And her sisters have similarly been partnered off with men in Hale’s orbit, setting the stage for a monumental crime.
Those thinking the star power of DiCaprio and De Niro (plus Jesse Plemons as Tom White, John Lithgow as a federal prosecutor, and Brendan Fraser as Hale’s venal attorney) will sweeten this pill are in for a shock. DiCaprio’s Ernest falls far short of his name. and despite not being the sharpest tool in Hale’s box, he’s not ignorant to what’s going on.
An argument can be made that DiCaprio is too big a star to play this kind of role. Certainly his dumb shitkicker performance teeters on pastiche as the film enters the final act. But it’s fascinating how he and Scorsese are using (and undermining) his superstar image to recreate another shameful chapter in recent US history. An event that shared parallels with the contemporary Tulsa massacre, acknowledged in the film.
De Niro is the finest he’s been in years. Dripping with faux-sincerity and cynical opportunism, he brings to life a man without mercy. Learning the Osage language to infiltrate their community, earning their trust through sponsoring social programmes, he coldly executes his murderous plan in near plain sight. Using religion (Scorsese’s Catholicism) to justify his actions, he exploits a system designed to benefit white settlers and flatten indigenous races.
Indeed, with belittling Native Americans something of a national pastime, it is a surprise that federal law enforcement is bothered to investigate the murders at all. Known more by adopted European names than their given names, the Osage are also poisoned by plentifully supplied moonshine and duped by smiling, hand-rubbing neighbours. Less of a surprise then is the revelation that the Osage felt forced to pay the government $20,000 to investigate the spate of suspicious deaths.
If a major criticism is to be made about Killers of the Flower Moon, it is in the treatment of Gladstone’s Mollie. The actor is strong in the role, but the character is an underexplored metaphor for what is being inflicted upon the Osage by those supposedly closest to them. Her passivity in the face of a nightmarish situation may or may not be historically accurate, but the lack of psychological curiosity about her character is a significant flaw.
Still, Scorsese and Roth have taken care not to fall into misrepresentation traps. Consultants and historians were employed to guarantee the depiction of the Osage people avoids being filmmaker tourism.
As director, Scorsese forgoes fireworks for the same low-key style of The Irishman or Silence. Not that his visuals are dull. More that his directorial style here is in service of creating an authentic community, filling the shot with characters, costumes, and incidents to bring this bygone world to life. He and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto allow themselves baked-in stylistic flourishes. Late in the day encounters in the offices of the Bureau of Investigation have the deep-shadow beauty of old Rembrandts, while the final shot seems to echo the close of Fellini’s 8½.
Not perfect then, with longueurs absent from The Irishman. But Killers of the Flower Moon proves once more why Scorsese is held up as America’s greatest living director.