Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio team up once again to deliver the filmmaker’s best offering since The Departed.
When you look at Martin Scorsese’s illustrious film career, it’s hard to believe that Killers of the Flower Moon is the 80-year-old filmmaker’s first-ever Western. And if this is the filmmaker’s one and only film in the genre, it’s a staggering achievement that will leave quite an impact. Spotlighting a story that seemingly has been forgotten with the passage of time, Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t just a three-and-half-hour history lesson on a subject you may/may not be familiar with. It’s symbolic of American Indians affected by the banality of evil at the hands of White America as they not only drove the indigenous people out of their homeland, but also erased any signs of them having sustained prosperous, honorable, and fulfilling lives. Scorsese’s latest may be the year’s most essential viewing, as he stays faithful to the story in the book that provides the source material with references to a Biblical story before that: one where, “blood cries out from the ground.” Viewers should not ignore that.
Killers of the Flower Moon is set at the turn of the 20th century and takes us to Osage County, Oklahoma where the Osage Nation had not only made a life for themselves, but also had become some of the wealthiest people in America thanks to the discovery of oil on their land. But people from all corners of the country soon followed the discovery and came looking to take advantage of the indigenous people by any means possible. Then, seemingly one by one, the people of the Osage Nation begin to die by various forms of murder. With Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) not knowing where to turn, the Bureau of Investigation (before it was called the FBI) gets involved and assigns Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to investigate the murders. With White’s arrival, he and his team of investigators begin to hone in on white people close to the Osage Nation, including William King Hale (Robert De Niro) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The film is based on the book of the same name by David Grann and is told from the perspective of Tom White and his investigation. Scorsese, however, flips the narrative, and for most of the film’s runtime, we mainly view things from the vantage point of Mollie Burkhart and her family (including her white husband, Ernest), with occasional glimpses from the perspective of other people within the Osage Nation and through the various evildoings of many of the white people. Flipping the narrative on film from the perspective in a book that is quite good is a risky move even for the likes of Scorsese and Eric Roth, who did the screenplay. However, from a storytelling standpoint, this narrative change works exceedingly well and is better than having a “savior” come in and stop what’s going on be the main focus. While there are the trademark crime scenes we’re used to seeing in many of Scorsese’s films, they don’t overshadow the overall story, which is methodical in giving respect to the people of the Osage affected by the tragedies they constantly endured. We get to know the people of the Osage Nation and the white people who were closest to them while getting a better understanding of the good and evil at play here.
Scorsese loves to go back to the well and bring back established actors with whom he has previously worked, and this film is no exception as A-listers DiCaprio and De Niro are here for their sixth and tenth times respectively in his films. DiCaprio embodies the role of Mollie Burkhart’s husband, Ernest, and the results make for one of the best performances of his career. The same could be said for De Niro, who embodies William King Hale with a clear distinction, bringing to mind former president Donald Trump (as one colleague afterwards perfectly described) in his performance. While these two performances are great, it’s Lily Gladstone (who was raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation) as Mollie Burkhart who stands out above her colleagues. Her performance may feel overshadowed by the star power around her, but she delivers a powder keg-like performance when showing the pain and sorrow she and her family is continuously haunted by; to say her performance is one of the best in any film this year is an understatement. There are other great roles beyond the top three actors billed here, most notably coming from Jesse Plemons, who plays the investigator tasked with trying to solve the murders, as well as famed musician Jason Isbell in his major on-screen acting debut as the husband of one of the Osage women.
An argument could be made that the good and evil we see throughout this film is “black and white” without much in terms of twists, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing here right from the get-go. In the very first scene we see DiCaprio and De Niro together on screen, and we immediately get a sense of the greed/corruption already taking place and what will happen over the entire duration of the film. Just like when Plemons’ investigator Tom White asks a character in the film if they heard about “what happened in Tulsa,” Scorsese wants to make sure that the evil shown throughout this story is under the microscope and not simply withheld from public view and not treated in the same manner as the Tulsa Race Massacre was in numerous history books. The evil stewed in racism that ravaged the people of the Osage Nation was haunting to say the least. And while this captivating piece of filmmaking that features Oscar-worthy performances and production design is told from the perspective of a white filmmaker and thus may not give the whole perspective of what the people of the Osage Nation endured for years, and still endure to this day, it’s the most significant piece of pop culture to address atrocities against American Indians in recent memory.
Finally, you get the sense that Scorsese couldn’t care less about anyone’s complaints regarding the movie’s runtime, which clocks in at almost three-and-a-half hours. After all, is it too much to ask the average moviegoer, who thinks nothing of binge-watching TV shows all day or watching superhero films that clock in around three hours, to put in a little extra time on a film that adds historical context to a people who have suffered for what now is hundreds of years? I don’t think so.