Killers of the Flower Moon Review | Another Scorsese Masterpiece

by Andrew Parker

For his latest masterwork, Killers of the Flower Moon, renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese chronicles injustice and the settler mindset in sorrowful, long form detail. Epic in scope, but up there with some of the bleakest works Scorsese ever crafted, Killers of the Flower Moon comes loaded with a tremendous amount of social, ethical, and historical burden. It’s a thorny proposition for a white filmmaker like Scorsese to take a story that’s rooted in indigenous perspectives and traumas and adapt it for the screen using the lens he brings to the material, but Killers of the Flower Moon is appropriately sticky and wrenching because it’s told from the perspective of the villains without glorifying their misdeeds for a single second.

In the 1920s, the Osage Nation in Oklahoma came into an unlikely economic windfall. After being forcibly moved from their original homeland in Missouri, they were settled on a parcel of land the U.S. government had deemed worthless and barren. As it turns out, there were massive, lucrative oil deposits to be found in the earth there. Almost overnight, the Osage found themselves in an unlikely boom period, with the tribe becoming some of the wealthiest people per capita in the world. But with prosperity and progress comes the hordes of white people looking to cash in quick on the Osage’s newfound wealth, or to weasel their way into one of the local families via marriage in a bid to inherit some of the tightly controlled tribal land rights. Some are even willing to kill and create larger criminal conspiracies to get their piece of the pie.

Scorsese and his co-writer Eric Roth (The Insider, Dune) approach this story by adapting journalist and author David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, which examines the history of the Osage’s troubles from two primary perspectives: one a family that was plagued by death and hardship, and the other a look at how the FBI’s investigation into a string of indigenous murders on Osage land became one of the agency’s earliest landmark cases. Scorsese and Roth tweak things somewhat, but remain true to the historical details outlined in Grann’s book. The familial perspective remains, but it’s approached from a different angle than Grann went with, and the investigatory component that takes up pretty much the second half of the book has been pushed slightly into the background and reduced. It’s a change for anyone familiar with the material, but one that doesn’t mess about with the details that matter most, and in some case, even illuminates them further.

The Burkharts were one of the Osage’s hardest hit families once white settlers started flexing their muscles and begging for money in the territory, and not in terms of their monetary value. Over a short period of time, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) would lose her siblings and mother, either to outright murder or mysterious circumstances. An intelligent, devout woman struggling with diabetes, herself, Mollie’s health wasn’t in the greatest shape, but her mind remained sharp. She found a husband in Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), an attentive, but not particularly well learned former solider who came to the Osage Nation looking for a job that could work around his physical limitations (and for a chance to work some illegal stick-up jobs on the side, in secret). Ernest was the nephew of William Hale (Robert De Niro), a highly respected, wealthy white man who integrated and endeared himself to the Osage, all the while biding his time and slowly creating an insidious criminal empire.

In Grann’s book, Mollie’s struggles and tenacity take centre stage, with Ernest being a relatively minor character until the extent of his involvement in Hale’s schemes is finally revealed. Scorsese, perhaps writing what he knows best after frequently documenting characters that live in moral and legal grey areas, looks at Killers of the Flower Moon from the white perspective, and the results are chilling. In Killers of the Flower Moon, the white settlers are depicted as a plague descending upon a land, determined to wipe out an entire generation and race of people for monetary gain. The towns of the Osage nation are overrun with people desperate to make a quick buck or a run a petty scam, and often times the attention of these con artists is mistaken for assistance or respect. Those with greater criminal ambitious and more psychopathic goals aim higher, especially in the cases of Ernest Burkhart and William Hale.

Scorsese is one of the all time greats – possibly at the top of the heap – when it comes to depicting criminal mindsets; the planning, the desperation, the deception, and the compartmentalizing these people have to do in a bid to reach the top of their chosen “profession.” Killers of the Flower Moon boasts two tremendous, but vastly different performance from two of Scorsese’s closest performative collaborators in DiCaprio and De Niro. DiCaprio dials back his natural star power to play Ernest as a submissive wolf in sheep’s clothing; a man who seems to love his wife and children to some extent, but is willing to sell all of them out in deadly ways. DiCaprio is always able to find a complex moral battle within Ernest, but once the character fully gives way to his uncle’s deadly wishes, the actor always stops perfectly short of making the character sympathetic, when it’s clear that this man deserves none of that from the viewer. And for his part, De Niro delivers one of his career best performances as a calculating, manipulative string puller. William Hale had a serpentine gift for making people feel welcome and valuable, all while coiling around them and squeezing every drop of life and wealth into his own coffers. De Niro showcases Hale as a charismatic man who brazenly flaunts his evil intentions under layers of false kindness. Even when he’s been caught, Hale keeps working every angle possible, in almost unflappable, frightening cold ways.

When it comes time to introduce the investigatory angle of the story, Killers of the Flower Moon side steps the minutiae of Grann’s outlining of FBI bureaucracy and the generally lawless nature of a place where often dubious private investigators stood in for actual police officers, and instead offers something a bit more straightforward. Jesse Plemons gives a strong supporting performance as chief investigator Tom White, a man determined to unravel an increasing series of mysterious deaths, murders, and outright executions happening on Osage land when other law enforcement agencies declined assistance. Plemons is as great as always, but Scorsese handles a lot of the FBI stuff as being secondary to outlining the greater criminal activities from the perspectives of those directly engaging in what amounts to genocide. It’s less about how to put a stop to these actions, and more about why these events happened in the first place.

Without giving too much a way, there’s a point in the story where Lily Gladstone’s Mollie will have to fade somewhat into the background, but Scorsese realizes that this character and performance provides the film with almost all of its emotional background. Mollie’s narrative captures so much of what was going on in the Osage Nation at the time that Grann made her the centrepiece of his book. Although Scorsese wisely chooses not to put white man’s words into the mouth of an indigenous character more than he absolutely has to, Gladstone’s unparalleled performance fills in a lot of the blanks. It’s a performance so towering in its perceived simplicity that it overshadows everything else in an already exceptional film. Every bit of body language, glance, and carefully chosen and parsed bits of speech is meaningful and impossible to ignore. Gladstone makes sure the viewer hangs on every word and action Mollie makes, deftly making sure that her character’s perspectives and pain are always front and centre in the mind, even when Scorsese goes off to watch Ernest and William plotting and carrying out acts of psychological and violent trauma. Scorsese might be adapting the story from the perspective he understands best, but Gladstone makes certain that the emphasis is in the proper place.

It’s also remarkable and noteworthy just how lived in Killers of the Flower Moon appears on screen. Scorsese revels in period details and norms that continually pop off the screen, both in the white realm and the indigenous one. The way the wealthy members of the Osage carry themselves and conduct their business is held in sharp contrast to how the relatively poorer whites try to hustle their way into making a few bucks. The streets are bustling, but a minefield of schemers and lavish displays of wealth. There’s trouble everywhere, but instead of looking like a run down community of ill repute, everything amid the dust and oil looks shiny, brand new, and modern by 1920s standards. It’s not so much a world of haves and have nots, but rather one where the wealthy are rather hands off and the white people are constantly working angles and grabbing at straws. There’s more than enough to go around, but for different people with different reasons, too much is never enough.

Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese’s second longest feature film next to The Irishman, forces viewers to confront cycles of oppression. And while Scorsese shows an understanding throughout the picture that he will never be able to fully convey the pain and anger that made this yet another stained chapter in the history of indigenous-settler relations, he pivots to showcase just why such depths of evil are inexcusable. It’s another exemplary work from an artist that’s always trying to branch out and look at life from different perspectives and histories, even in the admitted twilight of his career. It’s positively gutting what Scorsese finds about human nature in Killers of the Flower Moon, and a work to be taken in all of its brutal, slow burning totality.

Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, October 20, 2023.

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