Film Review – Killers of the Flower Moon
Killers of the Flower Moon
It is remarkable that Martin Scorsese – now entering his ninth decade of life – continues to push the art of cinema in new and interesting ways. Since 1976, with the release of Taxi Driver, Scorsese has stood at the top of the filmmaking world – a title he has yet to relinquish. As others have slowed down or have fallen off completely, he has continued forward with the same energy that has fueled his entire career. His latest, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) is yet another entry in a long list of accomplished work. This is a great film. Adapting David Grann’s novel of the same name, we once again find Scorsese investigating the nature of evil and a society that would birth it. In size, scope, and runtime, this is Scorsese’s biggest film to date – an “epic” in every sense of the term.
The scale must be large in order to tell such a large story. An opening sequence features newsreel footage, providing details of the Osage Nation. After being forced to relocate to Oklahoma in the 1920s, the Osage people found themselves living on top of a large oil reserve. This discovery would give them vast sums of wealth, making them some of the richest people (per capita) in the country. But with money comes greed. Soon enough, the Osage became surrounded by white strangers hungry to get a piece of their land, property, and money. The Osage fell under the thumb of government influence. It got to the point that they had to ask permission of white officials for access to their own funds. Things go from bad to worse when one by one, members of the Osage Nation began dying under mysterious circumstances.
It is a system of corruption that goes so far deep that it’s treated like an open secret. As each dead family member or friend is shown on screen, narration accompanies the images by adding that no investigation was ever conducted to find the culprits. It would make sense that the infamous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white supremacists destroyed an entire community of black businesses (known as “Black Wall Street”), would be referenced here. Scorsese (along with cowriter Eric Roth) shows how institutional racism has become, and how power is often held by the most vile individuals. While doing his press tour, Scorsese described the film not as a “whodunnit?” but rather, “who didn’t do it?” The notion that everyone could be part of the conspiracy runs rampant.
But Killers of the Flower Moon is at its best when taking these large themes and condensing them into an intimate human story. For the first time, Scorsese collaborates with his two great acting muses: Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Both turn in stellar work. DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a simple minded soldier returning from WWI looking for work and a place to stay. He finds both in his uncle, William “King” Hale (De Niro). Using his natural charm and political connections, William has garnered a reputation as an ally for both the Osage Nation and his white counterparts. But beneath the friendly smile and gentleman-like veneer lies a ruthless sociopath. De Niro delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as the serpentine King – a man who will shake your hand just before pushing you off a cliff. In Ernest, William finds the perfect pawn. Ernest buckles under his uncle’s pressure, doing whatever is asked to win his approval. This is a turn we haven’t quite seen from DiCaprio. The boyish good looks have disappeared – his face is now lined and aged. He gives Ernest a bumbling, unconfident persona, as though he could be easily swayed in any direction.
As good as DiCaprio and De Niro are, the film truly belongs to Lily Gladstone. She plays Mollie, a member of the Osage Nation who falls in love with and marries Ernest. Mollie is the spiritual center, the one shining beacon of morality in a world filled with immoral characters. As Mollie finds her loved ones being picked off one by one, she withdraws into herself. She relies on Ernest to be her emotional support. The central point of dramatic tension involves the relationship between Mollie and Ernest. We spend a considerable amount of time watching their romance blossom which, of course, gets turned around once we understand how Ernest (and his uncle) are tied to the murders. Gladstone makes Mollie the entry point for the audience into the narrative. She brings us along to witness the pain and suffering her people are going through. There isn’t a point where Gladstone dips the character into melodrama – every gesture and glance feels right. She brings warmth and compassion to the role, which makes the inevitable tragedy all the more heartbreaking.
There has been some criticism over the choice of perspective. Some have argued that the story should have been told from Mollie’s perspective rather than Ernest or William. While there is no debate over who the victims and villains are here, Scorsese’s interest is a bit more nuanced than that. He doesn’t want to explore a simple “Good vs. Bad” dynamic, but rather dig deeper to understand how society could foster such evil. This has been his approach from the early stages of his career. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990), Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), etc. – Scorsese has routinely made lowlifes his main characters. Why? Not to praise or celebrate them, but to condemn them. On a grander scale, he indicts the very cultures that gives life to these rotten people. Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t a gangster picture in the traditional sense, but it does contain a similarly closed off world. Characters operate under their own self imposed rules, with William being the “Don” of the whole operation. Scorsese puts us all under the microscope and asks, “How did we let this happen?”
At a cost of $200 million, this is Scorsese’s most expensive endeavor to date, and it shows. The production design and art direction fills the screen with details – from the intricate Osage clothing, outdoor sets, era-specific vehicles, and scores of background characters. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the vast horizons of the Oklahoma landscapes to the claustrophobia of interior scenes. During one sequence, the camera will pull way back to observe a field of oil derricks from a high angle. Later on, the moody shadows and dim lighting of interior scenes hint that we have entered a living nightmare. There are sequences of brutal violence, but the camera never lingers gratuitously. Murders are captured quickly, bluntly, and with little flourish – indicating how cold and heartless the acts were. This is all organized under the steady hand of Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Despite being three and a half hours long, Schoonmaker’s editing never lets up on the pacing, making the time fly by.
There will be much debate over the ending. In concept and execution, Scorsese takes a huge swing here, punctuating the film with a sequence that comes, seemingly, out of nowhere. But after contemplating it, I find this to be one of the most profound artistic decisions Scorsese has ever made. After taking us on a journey through a heinous chapter in American history, he closes by exploring the very nature of storytelling. How will these events be remembered? Who’s responsible for making sure this story gets told accurately? He not only points the finger at those that would ignore these crimes (as well as the Tulsa Massacre), but also toward anyone that would twist, change, or alter it. It was a risk for an Italian-American to tell the story of Native people, and for that Scorsese indicts himself. He understands that he too, is complicit. He acknowledges that he has the duty of holding a mirror up to society and exposing all of its ugliness. He reaches out through the screen, grabs us by the shoulders, and implores that we must be better.
Ever since Silence (2016), Scorsese’s work has had a sense of increasing finality. Characters contemplate their lives, and question whether what they did meant something in the grand scheme of things. Has Scorsese reached a stage where he wonders what his work has amounted to, if anything? Killers of the Flower Moon is a staggering achievement. It offers tough questions but doesn’t provide easy answers. It pulls the curtain back to reveal the wolves walking amongst us. “Where did they come from?” you might ask. They’ve always been here.