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Killers of the Flower Moon review - Scorsese tackles challenging material in historical epic


As the opening moments of Killers of the Flower Moon begin we are immediately introduced to black-and-white footage intercut with title cards, explaining the history of the Osage tribe who, upon discovery of oil on their land, received an astonishing amount of wealth that could be passed down from generation to generation. Wealth that allowed members of the Osage nation to pass over into high society: wearing expensive jewels, being chauffeured by white men, attending universities. The images shown almost seem like that of an alternate universe, a wormhole into a world that might have been had the evil of colonization not equaled the oppression, murder, and purloining of Indigenous people and their land. It immediately brought to mind the Tulsa race massacre, a white supremacist assault on black residents in the Greenwood District of Tulsa Oklahoma, oft referred to as America’s “Black Wall Street”. A community led by black people who owned their own land and businesses, many moving to Oklahoma for a shot in the booming oil industry. Black doctors, black lawyers, black hospitals — all burned from history by a white man’s flame. When a character in the film watches a movie highlighting this very event, the parallels became clear to me: greed and white supremacy, an all consuming flame.

Killers of the Flower Moon is dense. It is a tightly packed adaptation of an epic novel by David Grann detailing the grisly murders of Osage men and women, and the lengths that it took to bring them justice. Martin Scorsese serves as writer and director (with co-writer Eric Roth), a master of craft choosing to tackle challenging material in his later career.

This is an Indigenous story. It is about the murder of Indigenous people, the theft of their birth rights, and the assimilation that allowed those wolves to sneak by their side, so a sense of weariness toward a non-Indigenous person being at the helm of this large undertaking is not baseless. Scorsese at least handles the story with care, he brought on several Osage advisors and the way he shoots their culture is a marvel, but nevertheless it is a crime film first — one that has more interest in those committing the crimes.

Ernest Buckhart (Leonardo Dicaprio) returns to Fairfax, Oklahoma after his time serving in World War I. He comes to stay with his uncle, William Hale (Robert DeNiro) - also known as “The King of the Osage Hill” - who promises Ernest a job. A promise that comes with its own set of expectations for the king in return. William Hale manipulates all those around him, acting as a friend and confidante to the Osage people and all the time plotting how to funnel their money into his pockets. He sets his simple nephew on a track towards Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman with a family fortune, and the two quickly fall in love — but the question that emerges is whether dim-witted Ernest’s motivation is his love for Mollie or his love for money. Ernest and William make a sick duo, picking off family members and Osage community members at large to clear their way to the money.

Dicaprio pulls out a strong performance here, but I fear he doesn’t commit to fully portraying the complexities of the character. Ernest is an idiot with dubious morals who is easily swayed, and at times we see explosions of crime boss potential, but I never felt like we were let in to the full pendulum swings of who he was — the reasons why he could so easily “love” someone and betray them in the same breath. Ernest simply isn’t an interesting enough character to spend as much time with as we did. DeNiro delivers a home run performance, perfectly balancing evil and charm. Each scene he enters with a different tactic shift which is truly something to behold. He hangs on the edge of explosion and it is impressive how controlled he is, always a threat of detonation but it’s a testament to his skill (and working relationship with Scorsese) how patient the performance is.

Lily Gladstone does something similar. When we meet Mollie she holds her cards close to her chest, coming across as cold but ultimately just protective of herself and those who are trying to steal from her. As the possibility of love is introduced we see her begin to open up to Ernest, her love for him and her even deeper love for her mother and sisters. We also have to watch her experience so much pain, which isn’t easy. I find that the story fails the character of Mollie when centering the characters of Ernest and William Hale. Gladstone does what she can, and Scorsese definitely has an interest in highlighting the character, but while she has the screentime of a lead she ends up feeling like a supporting character in her own story. She makes the most of every moment on screen, a beautiful mixture of gentleness, pain, and authority. I ponder if the film would be stronger with Mollie as the true lead, the character we spend the most time with and the vessel through which we try to uncover the mysteries of the murders. That would be a film that we’ve never seen before.

You don’t feel most of the runtime, I only started to notice how long I was in the theater once we reach the third act which takes a narrative turn — a crime procedural shifts into a courtroom drama which almost completely focuses on Ernest, William Hale, and the host of criminals at the core of the story. However, a spark of energy is provided by the introduction of a number of actors pulling out impactful albeit short performances — Jesse Plemmons, John Lithgow, and Tatanka Means in particular.

Scorsese is showing off his craftsmanship here, and has gotten to a point in his career where he displays what I can only describe as “visual play”. He changes between mediums, uses a floating camera through multiple sequences peeking in on the rich world he’s created, and fills every inch of a frame with information that’s almost overwhelming to the viewer. I have to highlight his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose choices make it extremely well paced for most of its run, but additionally made use of such intelligent cuts that genuinely bring forth emotional response.

At the root of all the problems are greed and white supremacy. White supremacy acts as a parasite in the community of Fairfax, Oklahoma, fueling white men with the confidence to murder and take with no fear of repercussion and imposing the expectation to assimilate as the marker of success for members of the Osage nation. The film itself may even be under the influence of white supremacy, or at the very least the white gaze, because it was made for a white audience rather than an Indigenous audience. But an argument could be made that this story would never reach as many people as it will without the filmmakers having made it this way, and certainly without Scorsese at the helm — which is more of a reflection on modern audiences if anything.

The last two scenes of this film do an incredible job of bringing the story back to the Osage nation. Moments that truly brought chills, and a monument that shows greed and white supremacy can never tear down a people so joyously rich and abundant in community.


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