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Killers of the Flower Moon

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Martin Scorsese, Daniel Lupi, Bradley Thomas, and Dan Friedkin
Screenplay by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese Based on the book by David Grann
With: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, Janae Collins, Jillian Dion, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Scott Shepherd, Everett Waller, Talee Redcorn, Yancey Red Corn, Tatanka Means, Tommy Schultz, Sturgill Simpson, Ty Mitchell, Gary Basaraba, Charlie Musselwhite, Pat Healy, Steve Witting, Steve Routman, Gene Jones, Michael Abbott Jr., J.C. MacKenzie, Jack White, Larry Fessenden, Welker White, and Martin Scorsese
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Robbie Robertson
Runtime: 206 min
Release Date: 20 October 2023
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color: Color

At 80 years old, director Martin Scorsese continues to find new ways to explore the dark underbelly of America, suggesting that this may actually be the nation's most prominent and distinguishing feature. His latest film is his first western, but it's also thematically a Scorsese gangster picture about the slow moral decay of an individual and, in turn, an entire culture. Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth (The Insider, Munich, A Star Is Born, Dune) dramatize journalist David Grann's historical account of the systematic murders of the Osage inheritors. This indigenous tribe was removed from their home in Kansas in the 1870s and resettled on seemingly worthless Oklahoma land. When that land turned out to contain one of the richest oil deposits in the entire United States, the Osage became instant millionaires. Over the years, White Oklahomans invented schemes to funnel the Osage's wealth into the pockets of non-indigenous settlers. At first, these tactics were fairly mild, like charging them higher rates for goods and services. But soon, laws were written to limit the Osage's direct access to their wealth. By the 1920s, a significant number of Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances. Near the film's opening, we're told via a seemingly emotionless voiceover that these deaths all went “uninvestigated.” The woman behind this stark narration is one of the daughters of a tribal elder whose family owns the oil "headrights” to a sizable chunk of land. That elder is Lizzie Q, played by the great Canadian actress of Cree and Métis heritage, Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves, Where the Rivers Flow North, Legends of the Fall, Smoke Signals). The speaker is Mollie Kyle, played by Lily Gladstone, but, notably, we have to wait a bit before we meet her.

Scorsese's near-three-and-a-half-hour epic stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a cheerful and attractive but shallow and easily manipulated veteran of the First World War, where he saw no combat. Ernest returns to the ranch of his wealthy, powerful uncle, William King Hale, played by Robert De Niro. King, a local business leader who presents himself as a great friend and ally of the Osage, explains to Ernest how their family can benefit by marrying Osage women so the oil money will eventually flow to their descendants. Within no time, Ernest, like his brother Byron, is married to one of Lizzie Q's daughters—the stoic but warmhearted Mollie. From there, events unfold slowly, linearly, and matter-of-factly. There are more thefts, cheating, and small crimes committed against the Osage (some by Ernest and Byron) as well as a lot more Osage deaths—some unsolved murders, some mysterious illnesses. As this straightforward narrative flows along, we understand all the more clearly how the events we're witnessing are put forth and executed.

During my initial viewing, I got stuck on the almost plodding, single-narrative quality that characterizes Killers of the Flower Moon. We expect a Scorsese movie to have a certain pace, energy, and intensity not present in this picture. Though this is hardly the director's first movie to unfold in a patient and deliberate manner—The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Silence all come to mind— there is usually a quick-and-dirty aspect to a Scorsese film that makes this movie at first seem slow and underwhelming by comparison. I found my mind drifting while watching it, asking questions in my head... Does a tale with so few characters and no subplots really require three and a half hours to tell? Did such a relatively straightforward western really need to cost $200M? It's great to see DeNiro and DiCaprio, Scorsese's two most trusted leading men, co-star in one of his movies, but might this film have worked better if DiCaprio had swapped parts with Jesse Plemons, who plays an important character that enters the story late in the second act? I was glad I returned for another screening a few weeks later because none of those questions nagged at me at all upon re-watch.

Many factors make Killers of the Flower Moon a challenging film. The biggest, at least on a narrative level, is that it has a soulless protagonist. Ernest Burkhart is a passive, dumb, shallow man, and DiCaprio goes out of his way to play him as even more shifty and spineless than he's written. It is a lot to ask of an audience to stay engaged in a movie of such epic length when the main character is so facile and has such a limited arc. But Scorsese, Roth, and DiCaprio are more than up to the challenge.

Many critics have faulted this picture for placing the White characters, rather than the Native Americans, at the story's center. But the film is called KILLERS of the Flower Moon, so it should surprise no one that it's largely focused on... the killers. We've been so trained over the last decade or so to identify with (or as) victims that a movie centering on perpetrators of violence against an oppressed community feels shocking. But should it? While the specifics of this true story are unique and happened long ago, this tale serves as a metaphor for, and an indictment of, how the United States has always operated and continues to operate. This is not a film about a small number of people who triumphed over adversity; it's a film about complacency. It's about how participating in or even just maintaining the status quo can be an act of violence. It is, therefore, vital that the picture clocks in with such a hefty running time. We're accustomed to movies where the bad guys announce themselves, and racists declare their prejudices with proud vitriol. It doesn't take a whole lot of screen time to understand where that type of villain is coming from. But in this case, the hours we spend passively witnessing the apathy and neglect of the White community to the violence happening to their Osage neighbors (and, in some cases, family members) enables the story and its themes to crawl under our skin and fully take hold.

It is also critical that the protagonist of this story be such an indecisive, dimwitted, and almost intentionally ignorant individual. Every American of European descent should feel some uneasy sympathy with Ernest. He's handsome. He's a cowboy. He's a soldier. He's everything movies have trained us to view as traditionally heroic. And we do like him. He's funny. He's self-deprecating. He genuinely seems to love his wife. So it's difficult to grapple with so much of what we see him do on screen because it illustrates how weak and easily manipulated he is, something we do not like to admit about ourselves. DiCaprio may not be everyone's favorite movie star, but I can't think of a more perfect choice to play such an avatar for America. Plemons, an actor I'm slowly warming to, could never achieve what DiCaprio accomplishes here.

Few will disagree that De Niro gives his best performance in decades. All the goofy comedies and sub-par dramas the great actor has appeared in over the last thirty years to subsidize his expensive habits (buying New York real estate, siring children) have tarnished his image a bit. Some of his recent turns have devolved into unfunny self-parody. But King Hale is worthy of inclusion on the peerless actor's pantheon of iconic performances, along with 'Johnny Boy' Civello, the young Vito Corleone, Travis Bickle, Mike Vronsky, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, 'Noodles' Aaronson, Harry Tuttle, Al Capone, Jack Walsh, 'Jimmy The Gent' Conway, Max Cady, Dwight Hansen, Neil McCauley, Louis Gara, Patrizio Solitano Sr., and Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran. King Hale is not one of those movie villains I referenced before who announces himself as a villain. But we're never quite sure if he isn't fully aware that he is indeed a villain. This prosperous rancher and beloved civic leader provides De Niro with a rare chance to play the menace hidden under glad-handing charm and the predatory threat that comes concealed in benevolence. King Hale is the personification of the American cultural idea of manifest destiny, as much as Ernest is the embodiment of all those who've bought into or gone along with that imperialist concept.

As Mollie, Lily Gladstone creates another kind of character we're unaccustomed to seeing in most Scorsese movies (hell, in most movies). She's a woman of few words and few actions, yet we're constantly aware of the thoughts and emotions behind her still silence. Mollie is always thinking, sizing things up, choosing when to speak and when to act. Gladstone's chemistry with DiCaprio is more than convincing. Her Mollie fully grasps the limitations of this lug-headed guy. But she falls for Ernest's easy charms and enjoys how simple he is to understand, despite her awareness that he will never comprehend the entirety of her existence. Gladstone made her film debut in Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian(2012), but most cinephiles will know her from her role in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women (2016). That memorable turn, in which she played another quiet individual with smoldering internal emotions—a ranch hand who finds herself infatuated with her young night-school teacher—put Gladstone on the cinematic map. This outstanding performance will keep her there for good.

In addition to these exceptional but unexpected lead performances, Killers of the Flower Moon boasts all the elements we expect to see in a Scorsese picture, put forth in ways we're unaccustomed to. The editing, as always, is by the redoubtable Thelma Schoonmaker, but we don't get the type of rapid, even intentionally jump-cutting style she's employed to enliven so many Scorsese films. Each scene in this picture moves at an intentional pace that enhances the bleak inevitability felt first by one group of characters and then by another. Another of the director's long-time friends and collaborators, Robbie Robertson, provides the haunting score. With this period movie, Scorsese cannot rely on the many needle-drops he's used to energize and pull together so many of his best works. But Robertson's sparse bluesy music is augmented with the early 1900s equivalent to popular singles: the folk and roots tunes preserved by traditional song collectors like Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. The film marks the director's third straight collaboration with the gifted cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Greta Gerwig's Barbie this same year, and his first time working with the legendary production designer Jack Fisk. Just three years Scorsese's junior, Fisk is known for visually striking pictures that take place in the great outdoors like Badlands, Days of Heaven, and every other Terrence Malick movie, as well as David Lynch's The Straight Story and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.

As I noted, Killers of the Flower Moon asks a lot of its audience, and the length is certainly the most significant ask. I've never been one who complains about running times or claims long movies without intermissions are somehow ageist or ablest, as many people are actually saying these days (though most who complain about three+ hour features are winey critics who have to see a lot of movies in a short number of days at film festivals - boo hoo!). Still, as the picture pushes into its three-hour mark, it gets even more slow and quiet. The one time I was taken out of the film on my second viewing was during the lengthy late stretch that features Ernest trapped in dark rooms being questioned for a long period. Both times I saw Killers were afternoon screenings in beautifully soundproofed theaters, but I did start to wonder, are people with 9 to 5 jobs who come to 9:45pm screenings still awake during this sequence? And how do these intensely quiet scenes play when the sound from the Taylor Swift concert movie is bleeding in from the next multiplex cinema? Scorsese seems to realize he might need to wake some folks up, so he brings in a couple of boisterous heavy hitters, John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser, to play the lawyers in the third-act courtroom scenes. Unfortunately, this casting ends up more of a distraction than an enhancement. Those factors contributed to my initial mixed reaction to the film, but they are minor quibbles in an otherwise astonishing movie. And the quiet intensity builds to three remarkable scenes that provide distinct emotional climaxes for all three central characters.

The picture also has a devastating coda, one of the most potent conclusions to a film I've ever seen. I've always disliked the trend in movies based on true stories of showing photographs of the real people at the end with text explaining what happened to them after the events depicted in the film. While I certainly understand the effectiveness of this type of ending or credit sequence—we often marvel at how much the actual folks look like the actors we've just seen playing them or smile at an image of them engaged in a moment recreated for the picture. Still, this practice has always seemed lazy and somewhat dishonest; a way of subliminally convincing viewers that the fictional movie we just watched was far more accurate and authentic than any narrative feature based on a true story can ever be.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese devizes a far more profound and credible way to accomplish a what-happened-to-everyone-afterward coda. He reminds us that history is storytelling, that nearly all history is told by the winners, that our most harrowing stories are often told for entertainment purposes by people with little to no connection to the events they recreate, and that, perhaps, the age and experience of the storyteller is the most important factor in how a narrative is processed. I can't imagine any other filmmaker pulling off this extended finale. Both whimsical and wistful, it unlocks a geyser of powerful emotions coming at the end of both this particular story and this particular point in Scorsese's long career. Providing a curtain call for the characters without trotting out the actors or the real people they portrayed, this playful conclusion grows increasingly somber as the director invites us to reflect on how our country's justice system operates and how our history is written.

Twitter Capsule:

Scorsese's first western is a historical murder story more unsettling than any of his gangster pictures. DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone give outstanding performances in challenging roles, and the picture serves as an indictment of the way American justice is served and history is written.