Killers of the Flower Moon
- Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Written by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese, based on the book by David Grann
- Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro
- Classification 14A; 206 minutes
- Opens in theatres Oct. 20
There are films, and then there are events that happen to be films. Moments in which the promises and platonic ideals of the medium are realized. Moments that put everything else – on screen and off – into a painfully clear-eyed perspective. Moments that stick, proudly and stubbornly.
Bypassing concerns of hyperbole, while giving a true New Yorker’s middle finger to accusations of being in the tank for one particular filmmaker, it is a pleasure to join in the chorus and report that Martin Scorsese’s latest production, Killers of the Flower Moon, is one such rare cinematic event.
Monumental in scope and intimate in construction, Scorsese’s new epic announced its ambitions before a single frame of the film was shot. It is the first of the director’s works to unite his two most frequent and trusted leading men, Leonardo DiCaprio (working with Scorsese for a sixth time) and Robert De Niro (10th round). It is Scorsese’s second-longest feature at 206 minutes, only three minutes short of 2019′s The Irishman.
The film is also the first from Apple TV+ that is being released in theatres a month and a half before it is made available to stream – an upending of the corporation’s until-now-untouchable business model that speaks to the general reverence for, and the cinema-first power of, the most talented and uncompromising filmmaker working today.
Partly a continuation of the career-long conversation that Scorsese has been having with audiences about the evil that men do, and partly a new dialogue that the he felt he needed to have with himself about just how the American West was won, Killers of the Flower Moon is an opus that could – but hopefully will not – act as the 80-year-old filmmaker’s last will and testament. This is a master artist putting a stamp on not only his own career, but also the entirety of American cinema and, why not, American history, too.
Adapting New Yorker journalist David Grann’s gripping 2017 book of the same name, Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth trace a twinned tale of unknown, or at least misunderstood, sagas: the rise and fall of the Osage tribe, and the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The film opens in northeastern Oklahoma circa 1920, introducing the Osage as both the luckiest and most doomed people on Earth. Driven from their territory in what is now known as Kansas, the Osage were left to disappear and die out on what was assumed to be worthless land. But unexploited cracks in the ground hid the dark riches of oil, and within a generation, the Osage became the world’s wealthiest people per capita. They built boom towns, bought the finest clothes, jewels and vehicles, and stacked their stately homes with white servants.
Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) is a member of one such Osage family, having grown up with her sisters and proud mother (Tantoo Cardinal) wanting for nothing. But soon, the vultures of capitalism begin circling, and she and many of her people are deemed to be incompetent by the government, with their bank accounts policed by white guardians who can approve or deny how funds are spent. In every corner of Mollie’s world, there are outsiders with hungry eyes, everyone looking to take what they cannot have but feel they are nonetheless owed.
The coldest gaze belongs to William Hale (De Niro), a local cattle baron whose megalomania and avarice are not-so-subtly underlined by his insistence on being called “King” by townsfolk and family alike. This includes Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Di Caprio), a First World War veteran whose love of money is rivalled only by his addiction to liquor.
Having already started to bleed the Osage dry through faux friendships and other unsavoury schemes, Hale sees new opportunities in a marriage of convenience between Ernest and one of the wealthier Osage clans, suggesting to his nephew that such an arrangement would be a “smart investment.” Any tribe member’s oil headrights can be inherited, after all, to non-Osage kin. Should any unfortunate circumstances occur.
After being put to work by Hale as a driver for Mollie, Ernest begins to mount a slow-burn charm offensive. Mollie correctly nails Ernest, posture poor and smile wide, as an untrustworthy “coyote,” but falls for him regardless. And so begins a marriage rooted in both love and deception, with Ernest balancing genuine affection for his wife and children with an insatiable lust for lucre and weakness of spirit. Years pass, the Oklahoma community grows thick with bankers and oil men and lawyers drifting in from other parts of the country, and the Osage begin to turn up dead. Including members of Mollie’s family.
By the time that agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) of the Bureau of Investigation – a precursor to the FBI so newly formed that no one in Oklahoma recognizes the name J. Edgar Hoover – knocks on Ernest’s door, bodies are littering the land and the souls of Oklahoma. And so a mystery that is not much of a mystery at all begins to unravel, messily and hauntingly.
The film’s many murders are brutal in a blunt, matter-of-fact way that underscores the killers’ callousness. Mollie’s kin are mere obstacles that need to be eliminated for Hale, and the Hales of the world, to get what they want. This is as violent a movie as Scorsese has ever made, but undoubtedly darker in its carnage, too – innocent men and women ripped from their world to make room for the fat lies of the American Dream. It might be the first of the director’s films to make you retch one second and weep the next, always confident that your senses are being rudely, necessarily stirred.
In Goodfellas and Casino and The Departed, the killers came with smiles, and left drenched in adrenalin and sweat and the exhilaration that comes with knowing that you’re going to Hell. In The Irishman, death was dealt with an “It’s what it is” shrug, though the guilt lingered inside, metastasizing. Here, the act of killing provokes a shameful, resigned shake of the head. If the Scorsese canon has been partially about what happens when you sell your soul, Killers of the Flower Moon is coming to terms with the fact that America was built without one. It is a movie about the acceptance of a profound disgrace.
With its crushing themes, massive run-time, vast array of ugly characters, and refusal to handhold audiences through its decades-spanning narrative, Killers of the Flower Moon can be a demanding film. But its rewards are rich, easy, inexhaustible.
DiCaprio offers one of his very best performances, abandoning any trace of leading-man vanity to lose himself into the muck that is Earnest. The actor’s eagerness to embrace such a complicated contradiction of a character – as seductive as he is suspect, pitiful as he is prickish – is a true testament to the talent, both raw and refined, of a true movie star. Play this against any one of his previous Scorsese collaborations – the rage-fuelled anti-hero in The Wolf of Wall Street, the paranoid head case of Shutter Island, the sad genius of The Aviator – and the layers of DiCaprio’s work ethic only deepen.
Gladstone matches her co-star beat for beat, delivering quietly revelatory work that adds up every second. By the time that Earnest’s mistreatment of Mollie lands her bedridden, Gladstone must balance an impossible stew of emotions: anger, suffering, fear, but also acceptance and affection. The proof of her success rests in the actress’s eyes. And Gladstone’s never lie.
De Niro, meanwhile, gets to build upon his career-long relationship with Scorsese to play a top-tier villain. As with The Irishman, there is a confidence on display here that’s unmatched, and only underlines how the actor’s many (too many) Scorsese-free productions are exercises in sleepwalking-slash-cheque-cashing. There is an impressive evil to De Niro’s Hale – one that comes into even clearer focus when Scorsese surrounds the actor with a murderer’s row of character actors doing the devil’s work (including Brendan Fraser, who will forever change the way you hear the words, “stupid boy.”)
Behind the camera, the late musician, Robbie Robertson, has produced what might be his most perfect score – a steady drumbeat that keeps the tension humming, the steadily creeping sense of existential dread thriving. Despite its length, the film never suffers a second of drag – and Robertston’s work is essential to maintaining that momentum. After the Canadian’s decades-long relationship with Scorsese that stretches back to 1978′s The Last Waltz, his effort here serves as a wonderfully sad capstone.
Midway through Killers of the Flower Moon, Earnest picks up a children’s book and begins to read the pages aloud: “Do you recognize the wolves in this picture?”
It is a question posed to no one, everyone. Do you recognize the wolves in Scorsese’s pictures? No need to answer. But we should all appreciate Martin Scorsese for playing the hunter, trapper, killer.