The most curious and meticulous director working today is an octogenarian with more than half a century of professional mileage. That would be, of course, Martin Scorsese. From a technical standpoint, the Hollywood veteran is among those rare beasts who gets his details, images, and performances right. However, the real magic of his films lies within his narratives, those relentless, fearless explorations of the modern American psyche and its many issues.
Killers of the Flower Moon, his newest, 206-minute part epic Western, part classic tragedy, is no exception. Doubling down on Scorsese’s signature moves and rubbing a protracted exposition in our faces, it offers a sweeping historical account of greed and genocide that made today’s White America. Despite its eye-drying runtime, Killers of the Flower Moon is not a typically flamboyant, infinitely escalating shitshow; on the contrary. Surprisingly delivered through an intimate, pitch-black love story and a shockingly thorough, scathing true-crime procedural, the account of the murders in the Osage Nation in the 1920s honors the victims and indicts the many perpetrators and accomplices – up to the present.
The performances of Scorsese’s darlings Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro as the simple Ernest Burkhart and his uncle, the monstrous William “King” Hale, will easily attract awards buzz. But the heart and soul of this gut-wrenching film is the mesmerizing Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart, Ernest’s Native American wife. She will certainly be the frontrunner for the Lead Actress category this year, head-to-head with Emma Stone for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. [Spoilers ahead.]
Screenwriting heavyweight Eric Roth, with whom Scorsese co-wrote the script, masterfully digested the narrative of journalist David Grann’s eponymous nonfiction book about the bloodshed in the Osage Nation and the erasure of the inheritance of Native Americans by the Whites; however, it was none other than Leonardo Di Caprio that insisted Killers of the Flower Moon be more private and personal. In a talk he gave at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival, Scorsese explained that his initial plan was to examine the Oklahoma murders from the perspective of the FBI agents who (eventually) investigated the case, where DiCaprio would star as agent Tom White. However, after a number of discussions, the actor convinced him to put the marriage of wealthy Osage Mollie to white hillbilly Ernest centerstage, saying he’d, of course, play Ernest.
Months later, Scorsese and Roth presented a revamped screenplay, still a historical epic, but one stretching far beyond the horror that was the treatment of Native Americans and into the territory of the horrors of being a woman, especially a woman of color and wealth in that climate. That’s how an already solid true horror story became monumental.
Killers of the Flower Moon‘s first minutes are a swift history lesson, and we learn of the (mis)fortunes of the Osage people in an explosive montage, magnified by the brilliant score of the late Robbie Robertson, himself part Cayuga and Mohawk. The Native American nation of the Great Plains was forced out of their home in the 1870s, displaced to a presumably barren reservation in Oklahoma, where an acre cost a mere 70 cents. Fast forward to 1894, and the earth trembles, brimming with endless oil deposits, making the Osages the wealthiest community per capita in the United States overnight. The White man wanted a piece of it, and we see grifters spreading like cockroaches everywhere, swindling the newly wealthy Osages out of as much as $35 for a photograph.
Certainly, many had bigger plans for taking over the wealth, and this is where things got complicated. Though the Osages could sell or lease their land, the “headrights” on the minerals were reserved in trust solely for them and could not be bought, only inherited.
“Do you like red women?” “King” Hale asks his nephew, Ernest, fresh back from war, in a seemingly casual chat. “Oh, I like them all,” smirks Ernests naïvely, mere seconds before he’ll be pulled into a whirlwind of Hale’s plot to systematically murder the Osages one by one and take over their inheritance. His target would be Mollie, one of the Burkhart sisters, who he would seduce and then “get rid of”. Hale, a self-proclaimed king, is a deputy sheriff, a figure of trust and authority, making his crimes all the simpler and more horrific. He straddles from one establishment to the next, effortlessly talking more and more Whites into committing murder while calling the Osages his “family”.
This ludicrous ease with which so many men were drawn to killer rampages and the callousness with which they executed the Osages is put front and center by Scorsese and his collaborators for half a century, editor Thelma Shoonmaker, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (whose last project was Greta Gerwig’s Barbie). Their deliberate lingering on the many scenes of cold-blooded executions, the long silences, and the sideway glances align fantastically with Killers of the Flower Moon‘s true crime aspects but also stress the profoundly personal nature of these acts. While the historical account itself invites the conclusion, Scorsese is hell-bent on underscoring that oppression and genocide are not mere political vehicles of the ruling classes but also, too often, a whim of individuals and their small opportunistic cohorts.
It is mainly for this reason that Killers of the Flower Moon‘s runtime clocks in at nearly three and a half hours, a mostly justified decision given the importance of the story. The performances from the entire ensemble, including John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser in third-act turns, are consistently strong, greatly aiding the unrelenting pacing. Nevertheless, of the many historical and sociopolitical insights of this release, it is the treatment of women (of color) that brings all the other sordid conclusions together, especially the point that genocide can start not just from a worked-up town hall meeting but from the comfort of one’s home, too.
Scorsese and his creative team are acutely aware of this, having redone the script to show the mayhem and loss primarily from Mollie’s perspective. Gladstone is truly fearless as the proud, reticent Osage who falls in love with Ernest, not knowing their marriage would lead to her entire family’s demise. As she witnesses the massacre of other Osage women (and men), she knows these are acts of organized crime but doesn’t suspect Ernest’s involvement, leading to tension that is frequently difficult to watch. DiCaprio, just doing his thing, is note-perfect as he adds layers of guilt and genuine affection for Mollie to Ernest, complicating their relationship. It is Gladstone carries Killers of the Flower Moon to the very end. She balances the age-old vulnerability of a female victim of domestic abuse with a politically charged resolve to maintain dignity and seek answers at all costs. I will not spoil whether and to what degree she will succeed in saving her life or finding her freedom.
Despite Killers of the Flower Moon revolving around the wealth and atrocious destinies of mostly women, it is still a boys’ film. It is understandable, if sad, that Scorsese needed DiCaprio and De Niro to sell the package as a true crime cum late Western gangster flick. Still, the film would have benefited greatly from more screen time for women and more meat on their stories. Relative newcomer Cara Jade Myers is outstanding as Mollie’s unhinged sister, Anna Brown, as is Tantoo Cardinal as their mother, Lizzie Q., but we never get so much as a glance into the inner workings of their minds. Thankfully, the creative team behind this picture is too thoughtful to let women be nothing but a plot device. Still, they had to have been capable of bringing the female characters to life better over the length of two average feature films.
Killers of the Flower Moon‘s penultimate scene is a stunning non-sequitur I will not spoil. It magnificently brings everything together in one last bitter punch in the teeth. The inexcusability of the historical treatment of Native Americans, far more reaching than the Oklahoma massacre, is highlighted by a tearful elderly man reading an afterword to an amused audience, showing the extent to which White Americans just wanna have fun and not think about the consequences of their actions.
While painfully on the nose, this is among the many teachings of this grandiose and rightfully pessimistic accomplishment. Private ambitions are turned into political atrocities, and nationwide guilt is swept under the rug for perpetuating the never-ending cycle of greed and violence. After Christopher Nolan’s masterful Oppenheimer, we are lucky to have another “big” picture this season to remind us of our establishment’s and ancestors’ crimes and their historical implications. Effectively, when we do nothing to rectify the horrors brought on the innocent of any gender, color, or personal conviction, we ourselves become accomplices.