'Killers of the Flower Moon' review: Scorsese delivers another triumphant knockout
Courtesy of Paramount/Apple TV
A tale of blind, willful ignorance and one of bumbling ineptitude at the hands of the white man thirsting for a birthright that doesn’t belong to him, Martin Scorsese’s epic odyssey “Killers of the Floor Moon” tells the tragic (and true) story about the 1920s slaughter of innocent Osage men and women after they were relocated atop one of the richest oil deposits in the country. How’s that for irony? The United States assumed when they forced Osage natives from their homes in Kansas around the 1870s to a permanent residency in Oklahoma, that it was a useless plot of land. It wasn’t and Scorsese’s sprawling film explores the power dynamics at play with how quickly Americans mobilized to “assist” in the handling of assets (at one point valued at $30 million dollars), which included a racist conservatorship program that appointed someone to oversee the disbursement of funds because they believed Native Amercians weren’t component enough.
Even with that guardrail in place, it didn’t thwart the “criminal masterminds” at the center of the film. I hesitate to even use those words because the two cronies (played with heft and unwavering tenacity by frequent Scorsese collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro) weren’t all that smart. In fact, they were kind’ve stupid, and yet they believed, because of how race dynamics and wealth worked in the United States, they would likely face no repercussions for their crimes, which involved murdering some 60+ red blooded Osages, and if Scorsese’s movie tells us anything over its three hour and 26 minute runtime, they weren’t completely wrong.
Yes, the movie is lengthy (and much hoopla has been made about it via clickbait articles), but there’s a reason and Scorsese has ensured an authentic cinematic experience. He’s trying to capture a slice of important historical importance and with that requires patience and context. So that when the final drum note lands, you feel the weight of what’s just unfolded and have a slight understanding of how these atrocities went unnoticed and fueled hateful rhetoric and behavior that’s spanned generations. Sure, you might be asking why Scorsese, by definition a white man, should be telling this story, but if you think he’s trying to sell a narrative with a savior complex, I’ve got some land in Florida to sell you.
This movie doesn’t do any favors to the sadistic men who methodically hedged their way into the Osage tribes and sees right through their moral code. It begins with the slack jawed, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returning to his hometown of Fairfax, Oklahoma after being discharged near the end of World War I. But it’s not the same as he left it: from the moment he steps off the train, the Osage population is now basking in their wealth with desperate white men from all across the country trying to get a piece of the pie anyway they can. Either via selling family portraits for a substantial markup or just good ole fashion solicitation.
It’s a vibrant setting and the score by Robbie Robertson immerses the viewer in the expansive scope of what the Osage has gained as Ernest is asked by his uncle William Hale (De Niro in one of his best and diabolical performances) the self annotated “King of the Osage Hills,” to undertake a rather large task. Considering he knows an easy target when he sees one, Hale, who is loved and cherished by the community, needs his nephew to woo over an unmarried Osage woman named Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone, remarkable) so he can ensure her lucrative family headrights become part of the Hale bloodline.
It’s here where “Killers of the Flower Moon” becomes as much a love story as it is about the murders. Even though Mollie understands she’s basically screwed when it comes to the hand she’s been dealt, both financially and physically (she’s diabetic), it’s still not enough to warn off the good looks and suave of Ernest who you can sense, both in the early scenes and near the climax, actually loves her. If only Gladstone, who is exceptional and worthy of award consideration, were given more to do.
It’s the biggest blemish within Eric Roth and Scorsese’s screenplay that Mollie is often pushed to the sidelines in one diabetic episode after the next where, by the time she resurfaces near the final leg of the picture, the complex array of emotions she must be feeling (after witnessing close family and friends getting killed), feels rather mute. But she’s able to hold her own against DiCaprio who, for all intents and purposes, is throwing the basic equivalent of a no hitter. They make a great pair.
Roth and Scorese have made some sizable changes from David Grann’s book, whereas the movie, similar to the novel, was originally supposed to focus on how FBI lawman Tom White (played by the great Jesse Plemons) caught the killers, they felt it would take away from the Osage perspective. As it is, White has been dwindled down considerably, but Plemons, always reliable and eager to accept a challenge, makes him more than just a punchline. And the movie is better because of it. Scorsese even manages to weave through what could have easily been a tepid courtroom procedural in the third act and lands the plane with a thundering indictment of how all these years later, discrimination among Native Americans and Osage tribes still run rampant. And how some people, no matter how much sense you try talking into them, are clueless and gullible beyond the point of return. The closing moments, in particular, nearly knocked me out.
That’s where Scorsese makes the case this version of the story was his to tell. Where, at age 80, he grew up seeing how this country did anything it could to take what it thought belonged to them. That the only way to get ahead was through greed and corruption rather than telling the truth. That willful negligence and bias isn’t learned. It’s taught. And that through the eyes of a disenfranchised population, the American dream was built on the backbone of those who worked harder to achieve their goals and still kept getting knocked down.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON opens in theaters Friday, October 20th.