Review | Killers of the Flower Moon | 2023

At more than three and a half hours long, Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon certainly feels as gargantuan and expansive as the midwestern plans that provide the backdrop for its harrowing, real life tale of murder, greed, and betrayal.

But as intimidating as its length may seem, it earns every second. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon examines the string of murders that took place in the Osage Nation during the 1920s as white people sought to wrest oil mining rights from Native American families in a reign of terror whose effects are still being felt in Oklahoma to this day. The film centers on the family of Mollie Burkhart (Lilly Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family is slowly killed off one by one in a scheme to ensure that their oil rights pass to the family of William King Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy landowner whose nephew, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), marries Mollie ostensibly for access to her family's wealth. As Mollie grows more and more ill, and the Osage become more and more terrified for their lives, the FBI eventually steps in, and uncover a world where murder has become so normalized it's almost as big an industry as the oil production that both enriched the land and tore it apart.

Scorsese has always been fascinated by human foibles, but Ernest Burkhart is perhaps his most Coen-esque protagonist, a loathsome and spineless man made even more so by the fact that he's no evil mastermind, he's just a big lout going along with the plan who gets in way over his head, and when handed a shovel to dig his own grave, simply can't stop digging. The fact that murder has become so commonplace than the white people living in Osage territory barely even notice it, is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Killers of the Flower Moon. With Osage dying on a regular basis, murder for hire becomes a commonplace trade, funded by the very money that once enriched the Osage nation upon the discovery of oil on their land. It's one of DiCaprio's finest performances, creating such an evil character and making him seem so normal, so recognizable, so...familiar. A yes man who no scruples or sense of morality other than self preservation. Even De Niro's King Hal, ostensibly the mastermind behind many of the murders, feels unnervingly common, hiding his evil behind a mask of benevolence and philanthropy that ultimately only serves himself. 

The heart of it all is Gladstone's Mollie, whose stoicism and courage in the face of unspeakable pain slowly begins to crack over the course of the film's runtime. It's a star making performance. I was first impressed by her in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women in 2016, and it's great to see her getting the recognition she deserves here.

For his part, Scorsese crafts the film like a great American epic, infused with the spirit of John Ford and Howard Hawkes, examining the rot beneath the mystique of the American west. It's a film that feels crafted rather than cobbled together, the work of someone in full command of their craft. And even at the age of 80, he still has new tricks up his sleeve. Watching what he does with Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterclass, as he pulls the rug out from the audience and forces us to examine our own complicity, and his, in this story's fading from memory. How the horrors of the past become entertainment fodder for future generations, names and places and dates lost to time, consigned to footnotes in a long forgotten history book. Scorsese is inviting us, no, forcing us not to look away; to bear witness to the since of the past, of a nation built on blood and oil on the backs of people of color, and the result is a work of great and terrible beauty.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON | Directed by Martin Scorsese | Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, Scott Shepherd, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Cara Jade Myers, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser | Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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