I hope there’s a drive for people to want to see what a modern epic from director Martin Scorsese looks like. Operating as a historical drama wrapped around ideas fit for both Westerns and crime thrillers, Killers of the Flower Moon has a lot to say about significant events of the past, which can no doubt be linked to the themes of today. It’s also a very thoughtful film. The much-reported on runtime of the film clocks in at just under three and a half hours, meaning there’s an investment that comes with seeing some of the best in the business deliver a dark tale concerning the Osage Indian murders. However, looking at how that time is utilized, not only is emphasis and respect placed where appropriate, there’s a genuine fascination with what it means to have certain cultures blend, how society responds, and the tragic effects of corruption.
Set in Osage County, Oklahoma, during the 1920s, oil has made the Osage Nation some of the richest people in the country. This wealth has inspired many white interlopers to not only occupy the area but also manipulate and steal as much as they can. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, a WWI veteran looking to start a new life working with his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale is a cattle rancher with enough ties to the area to declare himself “King of the Osage” and have others go along with it. For Ernest, as long as he stays on King’s good side, he knows he’ll be alright, and that leads him to Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Native woman who fits as someone Earnest could settle down with. Their coupling and all that comes with it aside, the continual unsolved murders of various Osage people increases in scope, with hungry wolves continually present all over town.
With a hefty budget, one thing is certain – this is an immaculate production. The recreation of this area during this period is incredible to look at. It’s not a matter of how familiar I am with Osage County, various ranches, or the towns in this region; I just can’t help but believe that this is a setting that existed because all the life that’s been breathed into it thanks to Scorsese’s team of production designers, costumers, visual effects artists, and other filmmakers. Having a narrative that rolls out at its own pace means the viewer can take in what’s presented and, more importantly, settle into the points of view that matter. This means being able to determine where sympathies should lie.
Relying so much on observing Mollie and her family, while it is clear Scorsese is adapting in the right ways when it comes to wanting to honor both the Osage Nation and the victims of the terrible crimes that befell them, this could have gone differently. David Grann’s novel, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” has a focus more skewed toward the violent transgressions and the role of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only in the final third of this film does Agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) hit the scene, and we begin to see how the FBI’s involvement affects the story. That’s important because, as Scorsese has put it, the benefit of how this film is structured now means getting to see a major motion picture with a heavy focus on Native Americans who rightfully deserve to be in the spotlight, as opposed to using them as just another excuse to see a film about Natives that places all the white people up front, let alone as heroes.
In taking the time to make this point, a great asset of the film’s screenplay by Scorsese and Eric Roth is its little moments. The spaces between major plot-driven moments are occupied with details that explain the relationship between Ernest and Mollie, the King and the Osage he spends time with, Mollie’s sisters and mother (Tantoo Cardinal), and others. It’s one thing to hear the music from the drum circles or see familiar conversations linked to attitudes regarding skin color. It’s another to see how the film can portray an admiration for people who have suffered at the hands of those who won’t hesitate at the chance to take from them.
At the center of all of this are the Burkharts. Mollie is an intelligent woman who is onto Ernest even before she decides that loving him is appropriate. Gladstone, who broke out in 2016’s Certain Women, is a perfect fit for a film that’s so contemplative. Yes, the epic nature of Killers of a Flower Moon means the scale is on display, and large moments between actors stand out. However, many quiet scenes are scattered throughout the film, allowing a performer like Gladstone to bring a different energy. She challenges her husband not by being a scold but by having a clear history that lets her know what men are up to and what evils the white man is capable of. At the same time, her skepticism and devotion to her tribe allow for more complicated emotions that come with being so close to Ernest and his gentlemanly but tyrannical uncle.
I’ll get back to Ernest in a bit, but De Niro’s work here as “King” Hale continues to show what power and authority the actor has with his best director. This is the tenth collaboration between him and Scorsese. After already somehow showing us something new in The Irishman, De Niro continues to reveal what an incredible craftsman he is in this portrayal. In addition to the little nuances the Oscar winner knows how to develop, one can consider certain relevant political figures when looking at this man’s actions. Still, even beyond his own inspirations and character traits that speak to how to manipulate the minds of those banding against an establishment, the man is just exciting to watch. In a film full of dread, there is still that undercurrent of entertainment Scorsese can bring to these darker stories, with actors like De Niro using his considerable level of screen charisma to make it work.
As for DiCaprio, this is such an ideal role for the committed performer. As much as I find his efforts in previous Scorsese films like The Aviator or Gangs of New York to get the job done, there’s something about these slightly dim, morally compromised, yet competent characters that he can absolutely nail. Decidedly not a firecracker like his roles in The Departed or The Wolf of Wall Street, we have a slower, more introspective character with Ernest. Yet, it’s not as though I think he always has deep thoughts. And with that, there’s a complex character on display as we observe a man that we question when it comes to what feelings he truly has for his wife, how committed he is to respecting his uncle, and what it is that truly drives him. Is Ernest searching for the American Dream, or does he just love booze and women? Is he actually a criminal mastermind, or is he just a lost soul following his WWI service that can now be shaped?
The supporting cast only further helps carry things forward. While everyone is delivering as needed, there’s something to be said about the impressions left by Cara Jade Myers as Mollie’s most strong-willed sister (she always carries a gun on her), along with Louis Cancelmi as the cold and darkly funny Kelsie Morrison. Plemons is once again aces as an authority figure looking to make sense of the world around him through stern looks yet a friendly disposition.
Gorgeously shot, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto knows how to point a camera, to say the least, but visual flourishes do not overpower this story. Instead, this is a movie where everybody knows what they are doing to allow this film to have its own texture. These settings all feel very lived-in. The violence we see is brutal and grizzly, yet presented in such a matter-of-fact manner that the commonality of it is as fitting as it is disturbing. This helps the characters, who arrive in scenes with little that needs to be said to establish their temperament, thanks to skilled filming choices.
As long as it is, it’s not as though the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker has lost any weight in just how effective her editorial touches are in making sense of all the footage shot by her pal Marty. Killers of the Flower Moon is deliberately paced (and no, there’s no intermission), but finding reasoning behind every scene means having the proper motivation to want to invest and enjoy how things play out. Granted, momentum increases as more and more pressure builds on Ernest and his uncle regarding the murders. Still, if anything, there should be joy in watching a master filmmaker ride on his instincts when given the means to do so.
I can easily assign platitudes such as this movie being “a rich tapestry woven together by the best there is,” and it’s not as though I’m being hyperbolic. There is so much skill, effort, and emotion brought into this film that it would be hard not to respect it, at the very least. However, with the noted complexities of the characters, a refreshing choice to add plenty of dimension and authenticity to not only the Native American people but the women’s stories taking place among them, and a general sense that a goal in mind was to truly serve as a tribute to this culture, it really is another astounding feature from a director that knows what he’s doing. If there were a way to strike oil in filmmaking ability, Scorsese indeed continues to have all the reserves he needs.