A film review by Craig J. Koban November 8, 2023

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON jjjj

2023, R, 206 mins.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart  /  Robert De Niro as William King Hale  /  Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart  /  Jesse Plemons as Tom White  /  Tantoo Cardinal as Lizzie Q  /  Cara Jade Myers as Anna Kyle Brown  /  JaNae Collins as Rita  /  Jillian Dion as Minnie  /  William Belleau as Henry Roan  /  Louis Cancelmi as Kelsie Morrison  /  Tatanka Means as John Wren  /  Michael Abbott Jr. as Agent Frank Smith  /  Pat Healy as Agent John Burger  /  Scott Shepherd as Bryan Burkhart  /  Jason Isbell as Bill Smith  /  Sturgill Simpson as Henry Grammer  /  John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward  /  Brendan Fraser as W.S. Hamilton

Directed by Martin Scorsese  /  Written by Scorsese and Eric Roth, based on the book by David Grann
 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

There are multiple themes afoot in Martin Scorsese's inordinately powerful KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON.    

On one level, it's a harrowingly bleak portrait of a historical tragedy that many viewers may not be familiar with.  It's also - as many of the 81-year-old Oscar winning director's past films are - about how the pursuit of power and wealth completely robs people of their soul and humanity.  Beyond that, the film is also a chronicle of a family and many of its damaged components, some of which involve deeply violent and dangerous men.  Lastly, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON also deals with how far some will go for love, even if that road is doomed to fail from the start.    

If one looks at the scope of Scorsese's career - even within the last decade or so - he's tackled large-scale projects of varying subject matter, but has done so with a deeply personal and introspective touch that made them so endlessly rewarding.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON covers the true story of a series of murders that occurred in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s, which were perpetrated by ravenously greedy and prominent white men that clearly wanted what the Osage people had - oil rights on their Tribal lands, which made them (at the time) some of the richest people per capita in the country.  This is a long film (nearly three and a half hours), but its length is justified by the rich complexity that Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth (adapting David Grann's 2017 book) bring to this nightmarish unfolding tale.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is not only another unqualified masterpiece by Scorsese, but it's also an important work that reveals a hidden heart of darkness that taints a very dark period of America's past that needs to be told. 

The story here - spanning over six years from 1920 onward - provides a quick prologue scene that shows the Osage people being pushed against their wills off of their land and to what they assume will be a punishing area of Oklahoma, but they soon become shocked when they realize that their new home resides over vast oil deposits, making them staggeringly rich in the process.  Of course, other white people in high places of power catch wind of this and try to find ways to insert themselves into this newly affluent Osage culture and, in turn, steal what they wrongfully think is theirs for the taking.  Obviously, the Osage are a proud and guarded people that don't take too kindly to get-rich-quick opportunists, leading to many hustlers seeking out slower and sneakier methods to coerce these people into trusting and accepting them into their families - often through marriage - in hopes of legally getting a piece of the oil rich pie.  

One of these men is a wealthy landowner, William Burkhart (Robert De Niro, re-teaming with Scorsese again after 2019's THE IRISHMEN), who has been in-bed with the Osage Nation as a caring family man and building what outwardly appears to be a pleasant relationship with them on multiple fronts while also serving the political needs of the larger white society around them.  Deep down, though, he's a duplicitous-minded fiend that wants to break down the Osage from the inside out.  Early in the film, he welcomes home his nephew, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio, marking his sixth collaboration with Scorsese and his first with De Niro on screen since - wow! - 1993's THIS BOY'S LIFE), who has just returned from World War I and now is looking to settle down and make a living.  William takes Ernest in with welcome and caring arms, but shortly after these pleasantries it's clear that this crooked uncle wants to use his nephew as a stealth weapon, of sorts, to get cozy with the Osage and even marry one of them.  Clearly, William can't just murder these people in cold blood and out in the open, so he instead plans for his minions - including the relatively naive-minded Ernest - to infiltrate the Osage through romancing and later marrying one of their women, and - most ghastly of all - assist him with a secret plot to assassinate these people one at a time (making it look like accidents) so they can legally claim the oil rights.  

 

 

Yeah...this is pure evil at play.

Interestingly, though, Ernest is not a quick study when it comes to his uncle's conspiratorial ways, mostly because he meets and slowly (and legitimately, it seems) falls in love with Mollie (Lily Gladstone, a revelation here), whom he gets close to through serving as her chauffeur driver around town.  Even though Mollie is more than a bit defensive when it comes to getting too cozy with white men, she nevertheless gets gradually ensnared by Ernest's plain-spoken charm and good looks ("I don't know what you said, but it must've been Indian for 'handsome devil'").  The two become an inseparable item and eventually marry, but after their nuptials he begins to see the sickening scope of his uncle's true motives towards the Osage.  Driven by loyalty to William, Ernest assists him and members of his family to systematically kill one member of the Osage at a time in hopes of acquiring their lands and endless wealth.  Things get awfully personal when Mollie's sister, Anna (Cara Jade Myers), is found dead via a gun wound to the head the same day that another Osage man is shot (incidentally, Anna was conveniently married to Ernest's brother).  Mollie is devastated by this horrific news while battling near debilitating diabetes, which leads to her being bed-ridden and leaving Ernest torn between his commitment to care for her and maintaining allegiance to his uncle and following through on his insane scheme.  

The central relationship between Mollie and Ernest is a complicated and compelling one.  He ushers in an extremely quick courtship of her, which sends many in her family circle to sound the alarm bells.  Slowly but surely, she ignores the pleas of those close to her and believes, deep down, that Ernest is a genuinely good soul.  Ernest, on the other hand, understands the impure motives of his uncle, but he nevertheless gets drawn to this woman the more time he spends with her and appears to - in time - fall in love with her...despite the rather large elephant in the room.  Mollie is being duped by Ernest and William on multiple levels, especially by the latter as he outwardly plays up the false facade of a gentleman ally of the Osage while engaging in a clandestine plot to eradicate these people off the face of the earth to become richer than he already is.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is a wake-up call reminder to the past glory days of De Niro working with his long-time partner in Scorsese, and here he plays one of his most deeply unsettling characters of his entire career.  The two-time Oscar winning actor can play sociopaths in his sleep, but his portrayal of William is so chilling and creepy because of his nonchalant attitude towards committing cultural genocide.  Scorsese has made a career of showcasing the explosively violent extremes of the mafia in many of his past films, but here these criminals are perhaps ever more frightening because they both hide and operate in plain sight.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON highlights how evil men commit evil deeds in the most casual ways. 

And William's mass murder scheme carries a majority of this film's long runtime, and perhaps the most sickening aspect of it is that with each new killing there appears to be very little - if any - effort by any local law enforcement or townspeople to investigate them and apprehend the culprits.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is not a murder mystery.  It shows us the guilty parties up close and personal and right from the very beginning.  William is one of many white men with limitless power that attempts to control every facet of this murder narrative and stymie any effort to get caught in the process.  The real tragic epicenter of the film is in how the Osage people try under increasingly hellish odds to band together as a tight-knit community while attacks on their innocent people go unsolved and unpunished.  The latter stages of KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON segues into a legal and police procedural with the appearance of agents of the then in its infancy FBI (one of them played memorable by Jesse Plemons).  They're looking to mount a sizeable presence in Oklahoma and get to the bottom of the madness that's befalling this community.  Cracks start to form within the inner circle of William and his family, which would ultimately lead to their downfall, albeit after ample damage was already done.    

What a mesmerizing talent Gladstone is here, playing Mollie with an outwardly soft-spoken, but inwardly unbreakable resolve that gradually, through the course of the film, grows to understand the scope of the nefarious forces at play in her world.  It's not a showy piece of acting that usually garners Academy voters, but she's so perfectly measured and gracefully empowered here.  DiCaprio, on the other hand, has maybe the toughest performance challenge of the lot when it comes to inhabiting Ernest's confused state of loyalty throughout the narrative.  He's not a smart man and makes a lot of cardinal (and stupid) blunders along the way in seeing his uncle's plan through to fruition, but he's no innocent saint either.  He's caught within William's vice-like grip, but nevertheless is a willing accomplice.  Ernest knows what he's getting involved in from the beginning, but gets more ethically challenged when his real love of Mollie gets in the way of working with William and his goon squad.  The more that I became entrenched in the tapestry of this historical world, the more I began to realize that KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON - like many Scorsese films - is yet another treatise on family, greed, loyalty, violence.  Those ideas have shaped films as far ranging as GOODFELLAS to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET to his recent THE IRISHMEN.  The director has explored the seediest criminal elements in these pictures, but here it's more personal and disturbing because of how men like Burkharts committed excruciating acts of cruelty on a race of people they wanted to exterminate to elevate their own financial statures.  

There has been much discussion about the length of KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, which is a much ado about nothing form of discourse, if you ask me.  I fall back to the late Roger Ebert's wise advice in this respect - "No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."  Unlike so many modern films that wallow in needless bloat and self-indulgence, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON earns its 206 minute running time because the sheer scope of the tragedy of what happened to the Osage people requires it.  Pacing is of key importance here too, and Scorsese - as always - flanks himself with supremely talented collaborators like Robbie Robertson, whose steady and haunting drum-beat-styled musical score subtly permeates through nearly every moment of this film and assists with its strong forward momentum.  I also forgot to mention that this film is now the second time that Scorsese has opted to work with a streaming giant, most likely because they appear to be the only kind of studio willing to give him the resources needed to see his vision through.  He did so with THE IRISHMEN (also a long film) with Netflix, and now does so with Apple, and the $200 million budget is definitely shown on screen in KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON throughout.  Scorsese flawlessly immerses viewers in another time and place of the distant past, with large thanks to Rodrigo Prieto's sumptuous cinematography, which evokes the vastness of the Osage nation in all of its natural wonder that's a prize for morally corrupt men who want to possess all on their own.  This is probably the closest thing we'll ever get to Scrosese making a Western; it's as visually magnificent as anything on his storied resume.     

If anything, the director has more than proven his sinewy adaptability as an artist and at a stage in his career when most would be calling it quits.  There have been many arguments over the years about the power of the cinematic experience versus home streaming (oftentimes spearheaded by Scorsese himself), but films like KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON find an often difficult middle ground.  It's scope and scale are meant for big screen consumption (which is shown by the film getting a very deserved theatrical run well before it bows to streaming on Apple TV+ at an unspecified time in the future).  I would argue, though, that the full impact of KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON - and THE IRISHMEN before it - is derived by seeing it in its entirety in a cinema, where you gain the benefit of having the entire film wash over you and in an uninterrupted fashion  At home, you have power over the film.  You can pause it...stop it...view it in chunks over the course of several nights.  Seeing in a theatre, the film has power over you, and you have to digest and process it in one sit through.  Even as the film reaches a point when you think it will end, Scorsese has more tricks up his sleeves by providing an outside-of-the-box epilogue that's wholly unlike obligatory end credit title cards that usually are used to reveal what happened to all of the players involved.  It's an outside of the box method to conclude a picture like this, but it also encapsulates the power that this film has over viewers when it comes to the historical journey it takes us on.

In the end, it's kind of extraordinary how Scorsese in his eighties still miraculously finds a way to not only remain a relevant filmmaking voice, but one that hasn't lost one iota of his dynamism while telling fresh stories.  KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON not only serves the purpose of opening our eyes to a nauseating historical event that sheds new light on America's past sins perpetrated against indigenous people, but it's also a triumphant testament to the continued prowess of its maker.  And after a decade of tour de force work that showed Scorsese at the zenith of his skills (like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, SILENCE, THE IRISHMEN, and now KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON), it's kind of mind-blowing to contemplate what this man will do now for an encore.

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