‘Killers of The Flower Moon’ Shines a Spotlight on a Shameful Chapter in America’s History
Oct 30, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Oct 30, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
The history of the United States is built on the actions of foreign aggressors who took what they wanted, with little to no concern for the Native Americans whose land they’d arrived on. For his latest film, filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed) tells one such tale; working from journalist David Gran’s bestselling nonfiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon, the film of the same name tells the shocking true story of murder, greed, and racism that decimated the Native American Osage tribe for over a decade.
When oil on Oklahoma land allotted to the Osage tribe makes instant millionaires of its inhabitants, guidelines are established to help the “ignorant” natives manage their newfound wealth under the auspices of (presumably educated) white “guardians”. When slow-witted WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, Titanic, The Revenant) arrives in 1920s Oklahoma to work for his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro, Heat, Goodfellas), he becomes embroiled in a plot to take the Native Americans’ oil by any means necessary.
Ernest’s primary task is to marry an Osage, Mollie Kyle (an award-worthy turn from Lily Gladstone, of TV’s Billions), to acquire her oil rights following her (arranged) death.
While Ernest works on winning Mollie’s heart, Hale leverages his position as a community leader and trusted friend of the Osage to manipulate, cajole, and outright murder the Native Americans into granting him their rights. With Ernest on hand to carry out murders, bombings, and/or insurance fraud, Hale is able to preserve his public image, even in the face of an estimated 60 deaths in what will become known as the Osage Reign of Terror.
De Niro and DiCaprio are legendary actors, but Killers of the Flower Moon’s narrative weight lies squarely on the shoulders of Lily Gladstone’s performance as Mollie Kyle. While the bulk of the film is seen through the eyes of the perpetrators, Gladstone’s Lily brings an understated dignity that lets us feel the brutality of the Osage Reign of Terror and its resultant toll.
Stoic, even in the face of adversity, Mollie is able to both size up Ernest and put him in his place with just a look, but still finds herself caring enough for him to bear his children. When she sets her sights on bringing the killers to justice, it’s heart-wrenching because we know there’s no way their story will end well.
When local law enforcement proves ineffective, Osage and neighboring tribe leaders use a large cash donation to convince U.S. President Calvin Coolidge to order his newly-formed Bureau of Investigation (BOI, the precursor to the FBI) to end the killings. As Agent Thomas Bruce White (Jesse Plemons, Breaking Bad) closes in on the truth of the Bureau’s first-ever murder investigation, Ernest will need to choose between his loyalty to Uncle William and the legitimate feelings he’s developed for Mollie, his wife and (now-) mother of his children.
As Earnest, DiCaprio is nearly unrecognizable, his matinee-idol looks obscured by awkward mannerisms and demeanor that drive home his character’s simple-minded nature. Originally slated to play Agent White, DiCaprio’s decision to take on the role of Ernest necessitated a rewrite that placed greater emphasis on the character.
DiCaprio works well with De Niro once more, with Ernest’s dimness starkly contrasting with Hale’s barely concealed ruthlessness. It would be easy to write off Ernest’s remorseless participation in the murders as a result of sociopathy, but his interactions with his beloved Mollie show that he is fully capable of empathy – he just chooses to ignore it. DiCaprio embraces the character’s quirks and flaws, delivering a performance that keeps the viewer guessing his next move all throughout.
The film’s being simultaneously available on AppleTV notwithstanding, Killers of the Flower Moon is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Barbie, The Irishman) is lush, and bursting with detail that fills the frame without overpowering the drama. From the colorful garments of the Osage to the dirt of the Oklahoma town where the story takes place, Prieto’s visuals eschew the traditional romanticizing of the Western genre, presenting us with a grounded world where tradition and capitalism clash in the name of so-called progress.
Unlike the similarly lengthy Oppenheimer, wherein director Chris Nolan (1917, Inception) maintained a deliberate pace while ratcheting up the tension to excruciating levels, Scorsese keeps things at a simmer, punctuating sequences with flashes of brutal violence. By the time Ernest meets his ultimate fate, it provides the same sort of catharsis as watching a car crash in slow motion. Scorsese may draw flack whenever he says that superhero movies aren’t cinema, but Killers of the Flower Moon’s best moments reaffirm his position as a rightful master of the medium.
Much has been written about Killers of the Flower Moon’s bladder-busting three-and-a-half-hour runtime, and with good reason – the film features moments that, in all honesty, probably could have been trimmed, if not excised altogether, such as the passing of Mollie’s mother, which veers the (otherwise realistic) film into spiritual territory.
Perhaps the most egregious inclusion is the literal staging of a 1940s radio play that serves as an epilogue before the end credits hit; this sort of theatricality isn’t present in any other part of the film, and if it existed merely to showcase how little mainstream America cared about the Osage murders, it probably would have gotten its point across. Unfortunately, the inclusion of rock musician Jack White and — hilariously self-serving — Scorsese himself(!), merely serves to draw attention to themselves, if not outright laughter. We get that Scorsese wanted to drive home the weight of his overall message, but one would think that having his name on the poster was enough.
Killers of the Flower Moon is impeccably cast and acted, despite its flaws; self-indulgences aside, Scorsese’s latest is a sprawling journey that shines a much-needed spotlight on a shameful chapter of American history that will resonate with the viewer long after the credits roll.
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