Based on David Grann’s 2017 best-selling novel Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a grim and honest telling of the rapid decline of the Osage people in 1920s Oklahoma. Scorsese’s follow-up to The Irishman operates between the genre lines of a western, true crime story, and murder mystery. Suffice it to say, Killers of the Flower Moon is an enthralling and extensive cinematic experience that will be studied for years to come.
The First World War is over, and ex-infantry soldier Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets his eyes on living and working for his uncle William “Bill” Hale (Robert De Niro) in Fairfax, Oklahoma. It’s here that Ernest meets Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an indigenous woman from the Osage tribe. Mollie and her family sit on a pot of incredible wealth connected to oil, just like all the other original Osage families, after her people were forcibly moved to a supposedly uninviting and unwanted piece of land in the state. As luck would have it, the Osage nation would become the wealthiest in America per capita, but with such wealth comes greed and, eventually, death.
Murders of local Native Americans are already a frequent thing when Ernest arrives. However, things turn for the worse when he marries Mollie and gets involved in the shadier side of his uncle’s business. He is encouraged by Bill Hale to marry into Mollie’s family as it’s a so-called good “investment.” Marrying an Osage with oil-rich land would give Ernest a legal claim on the territory and the profits to be made, so he unwillingly sets out for a life with his loving and trusting wife with the ultimate goal of getting rich. Day by day, members of the Osage are knocked off for their land, but the authorities do nothing to assist. It’s only when hundreds are dead and a trip to Washington, D.C. that the federal government is forced to get involved.
This is where Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Tom White and Brendan Fraser as Hale’s corrupt attorney W.S. Hamilton expertly enter the picture and heat up the proceedings to the next level. Killers of the Flower Moon is a story about trust and greed set in an ever-growing capitalist world. Martin Scorsese’s script, co-written by Eric Roth, is detail-oriented and takes its time as it meanders towards revealing the truth behind the hidden murders of the Osage. The pacing is great, editor Thelma Schoonmaker makes sure everything zips by despite being three and a half hours long. Looking at Scorsese’s repertoire, it makes sense that he chose this story as greed and violence are go-to themes in his filmography. However, this true-crime thriller goes deeper as the secret killings become methodical, the kind of tale that will chill your bones to the core.
Structurally and thematically, Martin Scorsese’s movie begins on a balanced note, showing the perspective of both cultures in a well-organized and equal way with only a little mystery. But as the plot progresses, the focus shifts to Ernest’s eyes as the FBI begins to investigate. You can feel the stylistic shift in the film’s atmosphere as it becomes more of a familiar Scorsese flick (swooping crane shots, dynamic lighting, the crime angle, and such). Though, with all sincerity, Scorsese is more interested in the interconnecting human relationships and the tragic story of the Osage murders as a bottled-up example of greed-filled capitalist societies that breed violence.
Leonardo DiCaprio leads Scorsese’s epic as the malleable Ernest Burkhart. He plays the role with such truth and intensity. As he becomes more and more disgruntled, you really start to see his full potential as he tries to make smart decisions – and that’s no easy task to act. A permanent pitbull-like frown, emphasized by harsh, dramatic interrogation room lighting, becomes the norm for Ernest as the FBI comes knocking. Robert De Niro’s shifty and manipulative Bill Hale pulls the strings. De Niro is doing latter-stage Goodfellas but without a New York City accent essentially.
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio both act as co-leads alongside the wonderful Lily Gladstone whose Mollie is too trusting for her own good, yet extremely sharp around everyone except her husband. One can’t help but feel attached to Gladstone and her awful predicament, we suffer while watching the two male leads slowly kill off her entire family. In showing us the criminal’s perspective, Scorsese makes a huge impression on the audience by highlighting how mindless the murders were. Gladstone is the soul of this tragic, devastating piece – everything is shown through her emotive expressions and looks, often saying so much without speaking a word.
Stylistically, you can tell it’s a Scorsese picture from the very beginning. Killers of the Flower Moon has his usual visual flair when partnering with now-regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Sweeping shots across the Osage vistas are elegant and stunning to look at, but Prieto’s at his best when Scorsese’s in his element (in the courtroom or through the brutal murders). The visuals are also thrilling when Scorsese breaks new personal ground when capturing the Osage culture. The killings are painfully blunt, occasionally cutting to the hits after they’ve taken place. They almost act as exclamation marks to further highlight the inhumanity and sheer tragedy of the senseless acts at hand. Additionally, production designer Jack Fisk whips up an incredible lived-in Fairfax that elevates Prieto’s beautifully colored work. This lived-in setting perfectly emulates the coldness of the most shocking scenes. Everything on screen is enticing and enthralling from start to finish.
There is no denying that Killers of the Flower Moon is a monumental picture for Martin Scorsese. This marks his second film in a row based on real-life killings, but now with the added pressure of representing a culture that he’s unaffiliated with. Scorsese’s care for portraying the Osage nation, who were rightfully involved in the production, with respect and dignity is vivid and deeply felt. This is much more than just another mobster movie, undoubtedly it will have a serious impact on Native American audiences as Scorsese reanimates the Osage’s tragic past as a learning lesson for America to reflect on. To end on a positive note, there’s some serious Oscar potential here as Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of his best performances of all time, along with a top-notch Robert De Niro and an ace, empathy-filled performance from Lily Gladstone.