Killers of the Flower Moon

October 15th, 2023




At the spirited age of 80, Martin Scorsese still has the passion of a teenager, with the ethos of a director on fire. His newest epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, is the type of story and the kind of film that could break a director at any age. Where it rests on the shoulders of other complex Westerns such as Michael Ciminio’s Heaven’s Gate or Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, this is still inherently done in the Scorsese way. Working off of David Grann’s nonfiction novel, with a robust cast, and a team of excellent artists behind the camera, Killers of the Flower Moon is not for the faint of heart. It’s a brutal, gut-wrenching tale of American greed in the 1920s, where the Osage people were pawns, standing in the White man’s way, and the audience will be forced to reconcile with atrocities done to the indigenous people. It’s done so in a grand piece of cinema, a sprawling, complex piece of work, from an artist who continues to shape his legacy through the only way he can: making great movies.

The location is the outskirts of Oklahoma, where the Osage Nation was regulated to, but would find themselves on land filled with oil, making them the wealthiest people in the world. As American laws would have it, the Native Americans could not exist without a system of a “sponsor”, which is where men like William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) hovered, making peace with the Osage, while having other interests at heart. After the war, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns home, willing and able to work for his King Uncle, who just about instantly pulls him into his scheme. Ernest becomes the driver for Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), the oldest daughter, where she stands to inherit her family’s great wealth. Through persistence and pathetic disposition, Ernest and Mollie marry. With her diabetes and a cycle of Osage members dying from what’s called a “wasting disease”, so begins the in-plain sight, slow methodical killing of Mollie and her people. As the bodies piled up, the question I began to ask myself, like a song from The Buckinghams, “Does anybody care?”

What becomes fascinating about Killers of the Flower Moon is how deep it goes. Not a depth into characters, per se, but how a scene can seep into your mind within the three-hour and twenty-six-minute runtime. It moves fast with the luxurious cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto and the electric editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, but while you are marinating on a scene, another one comes along, burrowing into your brain to think about. The themes are quintessential Scorsese, where De Niro’s Hale acts like the birth of a mob boss, but similar to The Irishman, Scorsese, and screenwriter Eric Roth are more focused on a true history lesson. Yes, this is about a transition period in the American West, but it’s also about the engrained problem of White privilege, and who gets to claim the land. Many will take umbrage at the obviously nefarious aspirations of Hale, Ernest, and the cavalry of characters surrounding them, wanting to scream, “Mollie! What are you doing?” But at the risk of sounding elitist, that is the point. It’s only when Jesse Plemmons’ Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White arrives, that anyone will take notice of the dead, arriving too late to bring comfort for those lost.

What becomes evident early on is that this is a full-scale, all-hands-on-deck production as well, featuring some of the best, and most fascinating performances of 2023. It’s redundant to say that this is something DiCaprio has never done before, but his character is free from his ego, featuring some festering black teeth, and a character that some would see as beneath such a prestigious actor. Ernest is outright stupid, almost too naive to take on the responsibility of helping Hale kill others while acting oblivious to the slow poisoning of his own wife. But he can’t overshadow the very presence and harrowing performance from Gladstone. The true center of the film, saying more with a roll of her eyes, while delivering dialogue that will soften your heart. It’s the type of performance that shrouds a film, lingering long over every single second of the story. Gladstone is smack dab in the center. The beating heart.

The ultimate praise however goes to Scorsese. He is America’s greatest living filmmaker by a mile and he still loves to stir the waters of cinema. His themes and style choices can be jarring, where the tone feels similar to The Wolf of Wall Street merged with the aching love story in The Age of Innocence. But as Frank Sheeran’s harsh existence in The Irishman would be without love, it is not for Scorsese to cheer us up. He ends Killers of the Flower Moon with the grace and touch of a director with something to prove. You will walk out of the theater with much to discuss. You might be moved to tears, or angry at how a story like this could exist. That’s the power of Scorsese. Killers of the Flower Moon is an American story and there’s still no better American director than Marty.



Written by: Leo Brady

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