THE STORY – In the 1920s, members of the Osage Native American tribe of Osage County, Oklahoma, are murdered after oil is found on their land, and the FBI decides to investigate.
THE CAST – Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser & John Lithgow
THE TEAM – Martin Scorsese (Director/Writer) & Eric Roth (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 206 Minutes
Greed knows no boundaries. Friends, spouses, or even familial blood. They’re all on the chopping block when money and power are concerned. It’s a sickness that had permeated this country from the beginning when the English settlers took this land away from the Native American tribes who called it home. It’s at the heart of legendary director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “Killers Of The Flower Moon,” based on the book by David Grann. It’s an epic story that is perfectly suited for Scorsese’s sensibilities; corruption, crime, and complex characters caught up in circumstances that test their morals. With the biggest budget of his career and reuniting with his acting favorites Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro (who are acting opposite one another for the first time since “That Boy’s Life” in 1993), Scorsese takes what would’ve probably been translated via. a podcast or television miniseries and has delivered a whopping 206-minute American-crime story which traces its roots back to the birth of the country and allows the master to not only explore familiar territory but travel across new ones as well.
Returning home to Oklahoma after serving as a cook during World War I, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting a pair of fake teeth and a rural dialect) meets with his Uncle (or “King” as many call him) William Hale, a cattle ranchman and well-connected businessman within the Osage Indian Reservation with deep ties to the community spanning back decades. Driven by greed, Hale convinces his not-too-bright and gullible nephew to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage daughter who will inherit her family’s inheritance in oil money should her mother and older sisters somehow meet an untimely fate. When a series of murders start befalling Mollie’s family, agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) is sent in by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to solve the killings.
Painting on a large canvas, Scorsese crafts a massive western with practical sets built from the ground up to immerse audiences in his brand of “cinema” to tell a story that is, on the surface, pretty straightforward. No grand mysteries or shocking reveals exist in “Killers Of The Flower Moon.” We know from the very beginning who is behind the murders, and instead of building this crime saga up to some sort of conventional form of storytelling, Scorsese is more interested in the themes and characters of his story.
This attention to character allows for Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro to deliver fully-embodied performances that dig deep and give “Killers Of The Flower Moon” the riveting sense of quality we’ve come to expect from a Martin Scorsese picture. DiCaprio has not had a role this emotionally complex since his work with Scorsese in “The Departed” as he portrays Ernest as a good man on the surface to his loving wife and other members of the town but with a darkness that is unforgivable in the eyes of the audience. His character’s naivety, coupled with Scorsese’s brand of tough guy dialogue (written along with screenwriter Eric Roth), gives DiCaprio many moments of unexpected humor when Ernest is put in an uncomfortable position by those with authority. And no one has greater authority over him than William Hale, played magnificently by Robert De Niro. Coming off his work with Scorsese in “The Irishman,” De Niro continues to supply his best work when he works with his longtime friend and his Devil in a white suit, who is parading around town as some sort of an ally to the Osage people is the kind of frightening performance we haven’t seen from De Niro in a long time primarily because of how subtly imposing it is rather than being big and loud. When he and Leonardo DiCaprio share the screen together, the results are magnetic. But above both of them is Lily Gladstone, who is finally given a showcase role after impressing many within the critical community and festival circuit with her work in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” in 2016. Mollie Burkhart is a tragic character who is forced to deal with unimaginable suffering. Still, Gladstone brings a dignified strength to the role that honors the character and the Osage tribe’s spirit of resilience in the face of such wickedness.
The production design by Jack Fisk is highly detailed, with many sets, including whole towns having to be built from scratch, while Rodrigo Prieto continues to stun with more varied work in his collaboration with Scorsese, each film different than the last. Here, the sun-soaked oil fields contrast with the darkness found within these characters’ homes to startling effect, always reminding us of the monsters that lurk in our everyday streets, not just in high positions of power (and how this continues today). At over three hours, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is even more reserved than in “The Irishman.” However, it still never loses our focus since the emphasis is placed on the beforementioned phenomenal actors, though, a tighter edit was indeed possible as many scenes are drawn out or shown unnecessarily so. And although he’s left much to be desired in the past with his work on other Scorsese productions, Robbie Robertson gives “Killers Of The Flower Moon” a distinguished personality with his bluesy rock-oriented score.
“Killers Of The Flower Moon” presents itself at first as possibly Scorsese’s most romantic film to date, as the film wisely plays up the romance between Ernest and Mollie within the first hour. Once the audience is made more aware of Ernest’s true intentions (though his conflicted self might even be at a loss for what his actual intentions are), it delves into some of the grimmest territory Scorsese has explored where the cold hard truths of this nation and life are brought to the forefront. Money and power win. The rich stay rich and will stop at nothing to keep those they feel are beneath them precisely in their place. In the film’s final hour, Scorsese expectedly ruminates on the imbalance of power in this country before turning in what will go down as one of his most widely discussed endings to a film he’s ever created. Its commentary on how we consume stories such as this today compared to the last, how those stories have been misappropriated, and even his own complicit nature in such tellings is a bold and undeniably powerful coda to what was already a very solid Martin Scorsese film. With this ending and embracing the totality of “Killers Of The Flower Moon’s” deeper themes and how they fit within Scorsese’s iconic filmography, it is a reminder of why the master has not lost his touch and is still, at age 80, finding new ways to push the medium forward while keeping cinema alive.