In a movie about a years-long genocide (and by proxy, the rise of the FBI), the biggest moment of levity is a spanking. Some poor soul gets their chapless ass tendered red, but after a litany of meticulously orchestrated assassinations, many by a gunshot to the temple, the paddle shots can only be taken as a tense joke. This is the intimacy of partners in crime, especially within a tribe, willing to enact stinging but non-fatal blows to each other, while they plan out remorseless destruction to the people they’ve othered.
Martin Scorsese has made a career out of showcasing the snakes in the grass, a journey that has taken him from the mob to casinos, the Massachusetts State Police, and even Wall Street. Considering that history, Killers of the Flower Moon may be his most on-brand film yet. Given his immense skill and talent, there may be no better director for this job. However, given his status, privilege, and worldview, it’s fair to question if he’s the best person to re-tell such a lofty and personal tragedy. The movie, based on a true story, begins with the opening of an oil reservoir in Osage County, Oklahoma. In an incredible sequence, we see the Native American Osage celebrate their discovery, basking in the literal slickness of their newfound wealth. But we know better; this isn’t truly a happy moment – it’s the beginning of the end. Pandora’s box has been opened.
But before we get to the carnage, the movie has romance on its mind. When Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran, returns to Oklahoma, he finds himself trying to re-start the life he left behind, which includes fitting back into his nefarious family. But an unlikely bond emerges when he becomes smitten with Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Gladstone and DiCaprio sizzle with chemistry, he seemingly unfettered by her playful barbs, while she’s fascinated by his confidence and audacity. Mollie is one of the daughters of this incredibly wealthy Osage family, their possession of oil making them some of the most powerful people in the state. But the union of Ernest and Mollie will prove to be cantankerous for the ‘friendly’ but ultimately volatile relationship between the Osage and the white authority figures who call the shots in Osage County.
The movie resembles a mashup of Scorsese’s bloody mafia films mixed with a revisionist western. However, unlike many such westerns that may come to mind (think Unforgiven or No Country For Old Men), Killers of the Flower Moon does not begin solemnly. No, it begins enthusiastically, positioning the Osage as a success story within the American dream. Scorsese and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker are clearly having fun with the editing, injecting life and energy to these early scenes that were often missing in the sluggish The Irishman (2019). It’s only gradually that you notice the lingering dark cloud, which segues into Scorsese’s knack for quick but brutal execution-style murders. There’s moments here that share more than a shred of DNA with Goodfellas (1990).
The film balances a fine line between depicting a true story of crime and betrayal without making the violence feel glamorous. This was also Scorsese’s M.O. on The Irishman – he wanted to make it clear that he wasn’t basking in the violence but shining a judgeful light on it. However, the problem I had with that film is that you hardly cared about the 1-dimensional dopes getting whacked by a bumbling and nearly immobile Robert Deniro. In Flower Moon, there’s actually reason to give a fuck about the victims, as their trust is betrayed for the acquisition of their fortune. The methods of attack are also more meticulously thought out and thus more sinister. I’d argue the worst forms of violence here aren’t a bullet – at least that’s quick. Imagine slowly poisoning someone to death because you need them to live for just the right amount of time, but the end goal is still murder. It’s vile and without guilt.
With such a sensitive story about violence enacted towards POC, it can be expected that some would call into question the film’s legitimacy and the point of view Scorsese chooses to focus on. Much of the focus zeroes in on DiCaprio, as well as Robert Deniro as the scrupulous William Hale, a fact that has drawn some condemnation. While this is a story detailing the arranged slaying of a Native American family, perhaps it wouldn’t catch the attention of a wide audience if the movie didn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio’s big ass face taking up 60% of the poster.
Scorsese even foresaw potential problems with the adaptation, based on the book of the same name by David Grann, as the director sought the advisement of an Osage council to help bring dignity and accuracy to the depiction of the Native Americans. Despite the additional help, there still could have been greater focus on the characters within the Osage tribe, starting with Larry Sellers, who gets a brief monologue but not much else even as his warmth and screen presence still leave an impression. Other standouts are William Belleau, JaNae Collins, and Cara Jade Myers, who will likely never get their due as they’re overshadowed by the film’s star power.
However, some raised questions about a movie’s authenticity and ability to showcase a more omniscient perspective doesn’t mean the movie isn’t good. It’s actually one of Scorsese’s best, an expertly shot and acted odyssey. Chief among the loaded cast is Gladstone, who’s likely the favorite to win Best Supporting Actress at the time of this writing. Her performance is tender, witty, and empathetic, thrust with the unenviable burden of representing and humanizing an entire race of people. She is the Osage, and to the viewer, she is the embodiment of the Native American people.
This isn’t DiCaprio or Deniro’s best work, but they deliver strong and motivated performances, displaying an uncompromising ideology that feels oppressive. Deniro stands tall, taking full command of every scene where he appears, while DiCaprio gets to dust off his southern accent whic… well, he’s still workshopping it. However, his depiction of Burkhart makes DiCaprio look goofier, dumber, and more pathetic than he’ll likely ever allow himself to appear. All the while, he’s still tasked with attempting to get the audience to buy into a budding romance.
Killers of the Flower Moon won’t please everyone. For starters, its runtime is obscenely long, perhaps motivating some viewers to see the thing on Apple TV+ as opposed to a trip to the movie theaters. The movie also, despite some good intentions to shed light on an important part of history, is still bound to adhere to the status quo, thus limiting the scope of the perspective. There’s a version of this film that immerses itself further into the Native American experience, but it’s not surprising that version is not the one we see before us. Scorsese tries his best to wrap the story in a bow, but does so by breaking 4th wall in the style of The Laundromat (2019). I didn’t like it when the latter did it, and I don’t like it much better here. I’d rather they show us this woman’s life in full, instead of telling us. But I say that not out of disdain, but care. Despite its flaws, Killers of the Flower Moon is a grand and important movie, and that’s why its criticisms matter.