FILM REVIEW

November 1, 2023
4 mins read
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCrapio in "Killers of the Flower Moon" Photo provided by Applepress TV

Words by Harry Moore

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Martin Scorsese’s majestic epic is a soulful chronicle of one of America’s many great untold tragedies that works as a cumulative work from the masterful filmmaker as he reaches the twilight of his life and career. Based on David Grann’s acclaimed true crime book of the same name, “Killers of the Flower” takes place in Oklahoma during the 1920s when people in the Osage Nation struck oil on their land, bringing in great wealth, which was soon followed by greed, betrayal and death from those outside of their community as a grand conspiracy aiming to kill the Osage and steal their fortune takes place.

For the first time, Scorsese has united his two great on-screen muses, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, both of whom have given some of their best performances when collaborating with the director. And “Killers of the Flower Moon” is no different in that regard, but the heart and soul of this film rests firmly with Lily Gladstone in what is sure to be a career-making performance. The film is largely told from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a recently returned veteran of World War I who goes to his wealthy uncle William “King” Hale (De Niro) in search of work. Hale poses as a benefactor for the local Osage community, learning their language and bringing the area into the modern world with renovated buildings and roads, all while acting as a shadowy crime lord, scheming to murder and steal away the native people’s riches. Hale pushes Ernest to get close to Mollie Kyle (Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family owns a large share of the oil, and the two soon form a romance as Hale plots to have Mollie’s family members killed one by one, as well as dozens of other members of the tribe.

There is little respite from the misery of this story. There are moments where Scorsese can squeeze in his trademark sense of pitch-dark humor but even those feel too morose to muster any real laughter. This is a methodical look at the final spasms of America’s original sin and the banal evil of the men who openly orchestrated these crimes over the course of several years with impunity, smiling in the face of the Osage people as they prepared to stab them in the back. Even when agents from the newly minted Bureau of Investigation led by Agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) ride in to save the day it feels too late. The once-thriving Osage community has been decimated beyond repair, and Hale and his oil baron cronies have amassed too much wealth and power to be served any real level of justice. In Grann’s book, the investigation takes the front seat with the story running through the eyes of White and his team of agents — and we learn the truth as they do. While considered a more traditional, Hollywood approach to telling this story, Scorsese focuses on the perpetrators allowing us see how callous the whole conspiracy was, how it was run by arrogant morons and the film doesn’t fall prey to a white savior. It appeals to perhaps the most persistent theme through much of Scorsese’s career — that power in America is, and always has been, governed by greed, violence and our most immoral citizens — from the Wall Street high rises to the mean streets of our cities.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” features some best talents in their field, whom Scorsese guides like a symphonic maestro. Leonardo DiCaprio, who has grown into an actor worthy of his draw gives another stellar performance for the director who played a big role in elevating him above his “Titanic” teen heartthrob status and into the last true movie star. Playing a loathsome idiot in Ernest, DiCaprio shows once again that he holds no vanity as an actor, which may be his strongest asset as a performer. Robert De Niro reminds everyone what he is capable of producing on screen and has been sorely missing for this recent stretch of his career. De Niro was very good in “The Irishman,” his recent reunion with Scorsese, but he was largely outshined by Joe Pesci and Al Pacino in that picture. Here he sinks into Hale, who is possibly the most purely evil character the actor has ever played — which is saying something for someone who has portrayed multiple gangsters and the devil himself. De Niro and Scorsese have been working together for 50 years and created one of the most fruitful actor-director partnerships in the history of cinema. It is hard to imagine what either of their legacies would look like without one another. As mentioned before, Lily Gladstone gives a moving performance as Molly, in a turn that is sure to put her front and center this awards season. A special mention should go to Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-time editor, most important collaborator and a master of her craft herself, who manages to walk a fine line of conveying the many long years that this tragedy unfolded over without sacrificing the film’s deliberate pacing that kept me engaged throughout the 200-minute runtime.

Detractors of Scorsese have criticized him for returning to the same well too many times, and while he may have his preferred themes to explore in great depth, the truth is there are few filmmakers who have cultivated as diverse a filmography as he has. And there are even fewer who are this vital and at the top of their game this late into their careers. How many directors would be able to consecutively make “Hugo,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Silence” and “The Irishman”? How many could make those films in their 70s? The impact Martin Scorsese has had on cinema is hard to quantify. For as long as people are watching films, his work will be watched, and it is worth savoring however many stories he has left to tell. 

 

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