Martin Scorsese’s contemplative and high-minded American epic Western crime drama is based on the 2017 non-fiction novel of the same title by David Grann. Killers of the Flower Moon arrives as Scorsese’s 26th narrative feature film, an inevitable Oscar contender, and is certainly a substantial piece of cinema. A densely structured film that will certainly hold great shelf-life and staying power with its historical importance I will be curious how a repeat viewing will play out, as most Scorsese films hold so many stunning details in terms of style, structure, characterizations, and performances. All around, this is another stunning achievement by Scorsese and recent frequent cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, with the exceptional work of Jack Fisk’s production design and Thelma Schoonmaker’s meticulous editing style. Scorsese co-wrote the script with Eric Roth (Munich, The Insider), and their dialogue together allows the actors to deliver the lines with a stark vividness where you can feel the sustained passion and soul in every line and moment in this gargantuan of a movie.
Now in his elder years, Scorsese continues to deliver his rich artistry and his degree of grace for his recent films that feel like elegiac sagas attempting to atone for original sins. Silence completed his faith trilogy with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundan, and The Irishman completed his array of gangster films (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed) that felt like a swan song to that genre. With this one, Scorsese digs deep into our past history that echoes his work of Gangs of New York, in which so much of the history has been whitewashed over the years as Scorsese explores greed and the tragic series of Oklahoma murders in the height of prosperity during Osage Nation economic surge during the 1920s, right after the Natives discovered oil wells on their reservation. Despite its 206-minute running time, the film is engrossing and dramatically satisfying across the board. Do not expect the hyper-visual energy of Scorsese previous gangster masterpieces like Goodfellas, Casino, or The Wolf of Wall Street; the film has more restraint to match the melancholy but is still extravagant in scope that compares to the late epic work of the great Akira Kurosawa (Ran, Dreams, Kagemusha). There are far more static shots than moving camera shots this time around, and yet Scorsese and Prieto still manage to deliver impressive set pieces and technical bravura. The exchanges of the first-rate ensemble cast, which includes Leonardo Di Caprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, and Jesse Plemons, all electrify.
Scorsese’s latest film doesn’t need the energetic artistry that we have become acquainted with over the years. His approach is more somber and more controlled, and for his first time since Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, he finds a strong female protagonist lead led by Gladstone, who is given so much emotional depth and vulnerability to work with here. She delivers the highlight performance of the film as Mollie, the Osage Native, who plays the central character of this sprawling chronicle of American injustice and greed that is both shattering and delicate. Gladstone is powerful here and delivers a wide garment of stirring emotions where her characterizations, eyes, mannerisms, and screen presence speak loud volumes while being so controlled. It’s a beautifully melodic performance that deserves all the praise. A performance so great that I hope more modern film buffs track down Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 Certain Women, where she delivered an equally outstanding performance as well.
Gladstone’s performance impresses even more, as she stands out with acting veterans such as DiCaprio and De Niro, and she holds her own in their exchanges. Both DiCaprio and De Niro also turn in great performances. They have been long-term collaborators with Scorsese, and they once acted together in one of his films after appearing in separate films. Although both DiCaprio and De Niro did act together in the 1993 domestic drama This Boy’s Life, we once again see De Niro hold abuse and fatherly power over DiCaprio. Regardless, it’s relieving to see Scorsese deliver a commanding female lead here, where her scenes will live on in our minds well after the credits roll.
As Grann’s sprawling novel merges the whodunit with a Western setting, this is Scorsese’s first attempt at the Western genre, and he proves he has the conviction to take on a new genre that he has always wanted to explore. You can sense his love for John Ford in the craft, with cultures colliding with greed and self-interest. Scorsese and Roth stray away from white savior tropes and instead place genuine tributes to the Osage culture and rituals. While many will hold quibbles and gripe about the running time (which is around the same length as The Irishman), Scorsese has earned the right to tell epic stories, and his saga is bulky with a lot of rich drama and paramount insights into the darker side of American history that many fear to explore. The film is also a bristling love story as well as a riveting chronicle of crime and greed. It’s an ambitious feat that warrants his scope.
The Saga begins in the late 19th century with the routine Osage spiritual life of desolation and defeat. After feeling dour, a group of Osage natives opine how they feel defeated, fatalistic, and hopeless as they have been conquered by white settlers and placed on a small reservation. They ask their gods for a spiritual appraisal, and during a staggering set piece, a large vessel of oil sprays from under the ground. Using the same creative aesthetics as he did with some images in Raging Bull, he uses silent-movie film stock with title cards to reveal how wealthy the Osage community had become after striking oil. It echoes the early days of Black Wall Street, and we see white “guardians” controlling their money and opportunists traveling into the reservation seeking employment, opportunities, and other forms of self-interest. Scorsese also uses a heartbreaking montage of recently deceased Osage Native Americans who recently died as most are staged in God’s Eye angles. We are introduced to Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a WW1 vet who gets off a train to travel to the town of Osage seeking wealth. He reconnects with his uncle, William Hale (De Niro), the local cattle rancher and elected sheriff, who refers to himself as “The King” as he speaks the Osage language and cavalcades himself as a friend and ally to the Osage nation when it’s all a facade. We see Mollie trying to convince her accountant to release funds for medical bills as she suffers from diabetes.
It doesn’t take long to realize Hale’s motives. This is where Scorsese comfort zone in storytelling and characterization comes into effect as he once again explores organized crime, where Hale has built a conspiracy to target and eventually kill off Mollie’s family and other Osage tribe members for their wealth. He craves the Osage wealth, and his sinister plots thicken and become exponentially more dangerous as the narrative unfolds. He even convinces Ernest to get in a relationship with Mollie, so he gains wealth for himself and keeps it within the family. Ernest has his own self-interest and is nowhere near as methodical as his uncle, but he is certainly complicit in his vicious schemes.
Mollie can also see right through Ernest’s intentions, but the two grow a bond and affection towards each other that becomes genuine and legitimate. Meanwhile, many of Mollie’s sisters and mother continue to be ailing with strange illnesses, and her community already has a lot of bizarre incidents of the wealthy Osage citizens dying from “suicides” and illnesses at young ages in very suspicious ways. Tragically, Mollie’s sisters and mother also die at a young age, and nearly everyone in the Osage community doesn’t make it past the age of 50. Mollie’s diabetes worsens, and Ernest ends up becoming her caretaker. As Ernest’s love deepens with Mollie, he finds himself conflicted between being loyal to his wife and his uncle. Yet his inner sense and moral compass can certainly be found in Mollie’s concerns about her community, family, friends, and roots being annihilated. This leads her and her fellow community members to travel to Washington, D.C., to request help from President Calvin Coolidge just outside the Capitol to look into the murders of Osage.
Coolidge ends up listening to the plight of Mollie, and within weeks, the Commander-in-Chief sends out a field of FBI agents led by agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), who is under J. Edgar Hoover, to investigate the Osage murders. The third act of the film leads to Agent White piecing evidence together through eyewitness testimonies, which leads to gripping courtroom scenes where we see Brendan Fraser once again deliver a dramatically wrenching role as Ernest and Willilam’s defense attorney as he battles it out with John Lithgow, who plays the prosecuting attorney.
What follows after a highly engaging third act is a memorable epilogue that I will not spoil, but it allows Martin Scorsese to pay honorable tribute to the Osage people, to Natives, and to cinema as a whole. Killers of the Flower becomes a deeply personal film, done on a large scale and with vigor. Out of all of Scorsese films, this is perhaps his most grandiose with his wide-open setting. It has towering craftsmanship (especially an astonishing wide tracking shot that reveals a large field of oil derricks), and it has many moments of dignity and empathy. I will be curious how this epic measures up with the rest of Scorsese’s filmography in years to come, but my guess is it will live on like so many of his other masterpieces. Perhaps not quite as great as Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, or The Irishman, Scorsese proves at age 80 that he is still at a creative crossroads. Amazingly, he continues to emerge himself as a mature and wise filmmaker, where his storytelling continues to stay rich, and he continues to always prove himself as an extremely gifted visionary.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters Friday, October 20th in Theaters.