If you love cinema, then chances are, you love Martin Scorsese. His indelible mark on cinema could not be bigger, both as a filmmaker with a foundational and eclectic oeuvre most artists could only dream of, as well his work as an archivist, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of neglected cinema with his famed World Cinema Project. He is the Patron Saint of all film buffs simply because he is one of us. His unwavering passion for the art form is always at the forefront of his work and he utilizes the full power of cinema as a storytelling medium in a way that few filmmakers can. His beautifully cathartic elegy of mortality and legacy that was The Irishman was always going to be a tremendously difficult act to follow, even for someone with Scorsese’s ability and especially after a film that felt so personal so late in his career. But you are always in safe hands with Marty, this time adapting David Grann’s best-selling non-fiction book on the infamous Osage Murders into a 206-minute modern American epic.
The film opens at the turn of the 20th century as the Osage people of Oklahoma discover a true motherload of oil on their reservation spouting from the earth like a geyser, with jovial celebratory dancing in slow-motion ensuing as they allow the viscous black sludge that will soon make them multimillionaires rain upon them. Cut to the 1920s and an era-appropriate black and white silent film reel complete with intertitles explains the oil has made the Osage the richest people per capita on earth. With great wealth brings great danger, attracting devious opportunists and swindlers alike to their reservation.
One such man is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning home after serving as a cook in the U.S. Army during WW1. He’s seeking help from his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro) a boastfully philanthropic cattle tycoon whose altruism is far from genuine and his benevolence is more of a thinly veiled malevolence. Hale pushes his unwitting nephew to seduce and wed Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who holds the headrights to the oil deposits on her land. Ernest’s betrothal to Mollie is a key cog of a larger, more nefarious scheme from Hale to murder Mollie’s family and gain control of their land and fortune.
Backlash and criticism are all but inevitable for the decision to tell the story primarily from Burkhart’s perspective. As the book was an account of the real-life events with a heavy focus on the criminal investigation led by Tom White (portrayed in the film by Jesse Plemons) and how this case ultimately led to the birth of the FBI as we know it today, naturally the perspective of the film needed to shift. Indigenous-centric media is often compromised by irresponsible or disrespectful portrayals or is hijacked by a white savior narrative. The Western world still has a truly embarrassing inability to acknowledge the atrocities of their colonial histories. And when countries like my homeland of Australia just last week voted in a national referendum against our aboriginal people having a Voice to Parliament on issues that directly impact them, these First Nations stories are as vital and timely as they have ever been.
The film’s Osage language advisor, Christopher Cote has spoken of his complex feelings on this matter, expressing his desire to have seen this film from Mollie’s perspective, but agreeing that only an Osage could truly tell the story in that way. Scorsese is acutely aware of this, respectfully understanding the Osage perspective of this story is not his to tell nor is it something that he can fully do justice. He does, however, go to great lengths to give the most thoughtful and honest representation of the Osage people an Italian-American octogenarian can, examining the unspoken ugliness of America’s violent history with their own indigenous peoples.
This feeds into the mode Killers of the Flower Moon narratively operates on; a morality tale about American hubris and avarice that Scorsese is a master of. Early on in the film, Ernest picks up a picture book and reads aloud the caption; “Can you find the wolves in the picture?”, an overt, yet powerful mission statement for the 3.5-hour behemoth of a film you will proceed to experience. (A daunting prospect the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker makes light work of with her editing majesty.) Scorsese presents Ernest Burkhart as one of his patented “Useful Idiots” who cannot find these proverbial wolves when they are hiding in plain sight, or even identify that he is one himself. The film humanizes Burkhart to a degree, almost out of narrative necessity from choice to make him the film’s primary focus, but there is never a slither of redeemability in him. He’s utterly pitiful and unsympathetic, blinded by his own cluelessness and the dollar signs in his eyes, never once thinking twice or questioning the actions of himself and his accomplices.
It’s a big ask for an audience to follow such a despicable man for over 3 hours of film, but DiCaprio nails the very tough assignment in what is one of the most captivating performances of his career. His painted-on smirk complete with crooked teeth, steely deep blue eyes that can switch from sad puppy to rabid dog in a blink, and the seedy southern affectation in his voice all drive home the foolish complicity of Burkhart. De Niro is equally excellent as the dark and menacing architect of all this evil. He too is a wolf in expensive, but very loose-fitting sheep’s clothing; a man who has more than enough but for him that is “not enough.” De Niro imbues Hale with a selfless, grandfatherly disposition that’s a just deceptive, paper-thin facade for his soulless, egocentric rapacity and authority, breeding a too-big-to-fail sense of arrogance.
On the flip side of DiCaprio and De Niro’s staggeringly vile portrayals is Lily Gladstone’s quiet, empathetic portrayal of Mollie. She goes to hell and back in her quest for justice and retribution and Gladstone shows incredible versatility within this single performance. Displaying not just a stern yet graceful demeanor with the subdued white-hot rage simmering beneath, but also real physicality and lethargy from the effects of both Mollie’s diabetes and her tampered medication that is making her sicker. Despite her story for large swathes of the runtime taking a backseat. (Literally. Ernest and Mollie’s first encounter is when he’s working as her chauffeur), Gladstone remains the thundering heartbeat of the film in the star-making performance many were hoping she would deliver.
Killers of the Flower Moon is another monumental work in the already monumental career of Martin Scorsese. Who else has the ability or the clout today to make a $200 million prestige blockbuster out of a wholly nihilistic revisionist Western with a pressing interrogation into racial genocide and colonial greed? Confronting, urgent, and absolutely necessary viewing with a coda that not only sets a new gold standard for cinematic post-scripts and even features a cameo from the great man himself, but leaves you with this sobering anger that true justice for Mollie and the Osage people was never truly served.
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