Martin Scorsese is the greatest living film director on the planet, and possibly the best of all time. I know it, you know it, gestating fetuses know it. He made his bones telling crime stories like Goodfellas, but his ability to take on basically any genre and turn it into gold is what makes his career something truly special. So many would try to pigeonhole him with works like The Irishman and The Departed, but the fact that he also gave us Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Hugo, The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Aviator, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street shows that he will never be bound by a single formula. He believes in telling human stories, and at getting to the universal truths at the heart of them.
Needless to say, the expectations were high for his latest epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the nonfiction book by David Grann that chronicled the Osage Murders of the 1920s. Originally, Scorsese conceived this film as being about the foundations of what is now the Federal Bureau of Investigations, as this case was the agency’s first major homicide inquiry. Leonardo DiCaprio, a frequent collaborator with Scorsese, was initially cast in the role of Tom White, the lead detective in the government’s prosecution. Knowing how well the filmmaker works, this was no doubt going to be an intriguing dissection of the formation of one of our government’s most powerful divisions. It’d probably be also laced with analogs to the present day, where the FBI is under attack from certain sectors of the political class who are basically trying to discredit the bureau for going after criminals who happen to be on their side of the aisle rather than being weaponized to hassle and harass their adversaries. It’s the kind of storytelling he just loves to give audiences, and we joyfully eat it up.
But then a funny thing happened. Scorsese started making the movie, filming in Oklahoma and consulting closely with the Osage Nation, including hiring several tribe members to work on the production. Talking with the descendants of those who lived through this reign of terror, he realized he was telling the wrong story. As such, the entire script (co-written with seven-time Oscar nominee Eric Roth, who won Adapted Screenplay for Forrest Gump) was revamped, shifting the focus onto the Osage themselves, and the real suffering they endured at the hands of the greedy. In doing so, Scorsese turned what would have likely been a compelling crime drama with a western backdrop into a quintessentially American tragedy. Again, while he’s helmed so many great fictional films over the course of his storied career, Scorsese has also directed several documentaries, and the making of Killers of the Flower Moon reflects the documentarian spirit. You go where the story takes you, not the other way around. The truth will out, and you must seek it.
I know I’m fawning a bit here, but it really is that dedication to depicting humanity that shines through the entirety of the three and a half hours of this latest opus. It’s not a perfect film. For example I snorted in my seat at the film’s capping scene that includes Marty in something of a self-serving cameo. You can also see a lot of his filmmaking hallmarks on display without innovating or deviating too much from the tried and true. And for what it’s worth, for a movie as long as this one is, the timeline feels a little bit confused and compressed. But it’s the story that truly matters here — one that is simultaneously shocking, callous, heart-wrenching, and all too familiar — and in presenting it from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, it excels. Add in some of the best performances of the year, and you’ve got a film that will compete aggressively for hardware this Awards Season, and from where I sit, I’m honestly going back and forth in my head between this and Oppenheimer for my current Best Picture front-runner.
In the late 19th Century, the Osage, having been displaced by federal and state authorities multiple times, settled in Oklahoma and bought land from the Cherokee Nation. That land happened to be sitting on several untapped oil wells, and when the black gold was discovered, the Osage found themselves the richest people in America. Prospectors and drillers came from all over the country, leasing and working the land for a share of the profits, but even in times of prosperity the more shameful aspects of our society found a way to assert their power. Unable to simply take the oil headrights, the local, state, and federal officials created guardianships so that white men could control how the Osage spent their money, deciding amongst themselves that the indigenous landowners couldn’t be trusted with their own wealth.
It is through these various and similar shenanigans that one William King Hale (Robert De Niro) came to a position of unofficial authority in the town of Fairfax. Presenting himself as a friend and ally to the Osage, Hale insinuates himself into the affairs of just about every family and individual on the reservation, mostly because he made his fortunes as a ranch hand before coming to Oklahoma. Learning their language and traditions, he’s seen as a member of the extended clan rather than a rapacious wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The story begins with Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart (the role DiCaprio eventually landed), returning to Fairfax after serving as an infantry cook in World War I. Admitting a weakness for booze, money, and women, Hale puts him to work as a chauffeur, and encourages him to find and marry an Osage woman, as doing so will ensure a secure financial future due to the headrights, which he could inherit, sending the money flowing in “the right direction,” as Hale puts it.
Before the story even begins proper, I absolutely love this character dynamic. De Niro’s played villains before, but none so cunningly slimy. Hell, it’s just weird to hear him affect a Southern accent, and a convincing one at that. But the conniving nature of his scheme is so meticulously evil that it’s almost impressive. In his unending avarice and racism, he has ingratiated himself to the Osage so that he’s the least obvious suspect when several members of the tribe die under more than suspicious circumstances. Serving as a deputy sheriff in a corrupt law enforcement department, he basically guarantees that none of the murders he himself orchestrates are ever investigated by local authorities while he gives false comfort to the victims’ families. He professes to love them, but constantly talks out of both sides of his mouth, damning the Osage with faint praise while at the same time doing anything he can to deflect attention, including low-key insults that imply the deaths are the fault of those killed rather than the killers. This is because he believes in his heart of hearts that as a white man, he is superior to the natives and entitled to their wealth. As he and others in the county put it, they “work” the land while the Osage “lucked” into their fortune, and thus they should enjoy the fruits of their labor, completely ignoring the injustices that have been systemically inflicted on the Osage and other tribes basically since Jamestown, and the fact that most wealth in this country has been given to white men regardless of work ethic since the nation’s founding. That Hale thinks his murderous machinations are part of his “work” to “earn” the headrights just adds another dimension to his depravity.
This is manifested in the way he manipulates Ernest. Leonardo DiCaprio has had many fine roles in his career, from cop to heartthrob, gangster to king, doe-eyed hopeful to spiraling cynic. But you know who he’s never really played? A simpleton. Yes, in his breakout role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape he played a mentally-disabled teenager. That’s different. I’m not talking about a handicap. I’m talking about a fully-realized adult of sound body and mind who just happens to be STUPID. Like, transparently dumb. He’s a man so blinded by his own vices that he cannot even see the obvious wool being pulled over his eyes. That is something DiCaprio has never done — at least not to this scale — that I can recall. As the film starts, you can tell he initially means well and just wants a good life, and Hale takes perfect advantage of that, gleefully attaching the puppet strings as he uses his genteel mannerisms to guide Ernest towards the unspeakable. The way the two play off each other is something to behold.
With minimal goading, Ernest catches the eye of Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), one of the wealthy Osage who takes care of her mother Lizzy (Tantoo Cardinal). Turning his charms up, Ernest and Mollie become romantic and eventually marry. What seems a joyous occasion ends up being the catalyst for Hale to set his master plan into motion. Using a network of hired goons (Tommy Schultz, Ty Mitchell, and Sturgill Simpson among others), Ernest’s brother (Scott Shepherd), and eventually Ernest himself, Hale begins methodically murdering all of Mollie’s family, so that she eventually inherits all of their headrights. The eventual plan is to then kill Mollie, and once Ernest signs a will leaving Hale as the sole beneficiary of his estate, take him out as well.
The execution of this plot is a masterclass in staging, costuming, and editing. Scorsese has been working with editor Thelma Schoonmaker for five decades now, and she’s won three Oscars and two BAFTAs as a result. She makes another strong case here, as she delivers each death in the most brutal and devastating manner imaginable while still being visually and technically pleasing. Some are very quick, with an almost casual gunshot to the back of the head where the body simply collapses and is picked up to be dumped off wherever. Others are drawn out for several scenes, prolonging the suffering of both the victim and the audience that watches knowing that there is no happy ending for the vast majority of these characters. Some are reduced to a montage befitting the ending of The Godfather.
With each one, you feel the weight of the moment regardless of its length, because of the expert mixture of Schoonmaker’s editing and Scorsese’s direction. In one of the more subtle but depressingly brilliant touches, with each ill-fated wedding and funeral, the surrounding crowd of Osage dwindles, replaced more and more by white attendees, if there are any at all. It ends up feeling like a reverse Prima Nocta. Rather than breeding the Osage out of existence, Hale simply uses the legal institution of marriage as a pretext for murder, be it through quick violence or slow poisoning. Even young children are seen as collateral damage at best, which again only fuels the almost sociopathic disregard he has for the lives of those he considers beneath him. He’ll grieve with the family of someone he knew since infancy in public, but in private he considers them little more than another obstacle he no longer has to deal with.
This is further supplemented by the costume design. Working closely with the Osage Nation, Jacqueline West (four Oscar nominations to date) seems to have put a particular emphasis on historical accuracy mixed with dramatic contrast. The traditional garb of the tribe, including headdresses, shawls, and blankets (the latter of which is used as a derogatory term for a native wife in the film) start off quite bright and colorful at the beginning of the proceedings, but slowly wither and fade as the body count rises. On the flip side, most of the white characters outside of Hale are covered in dusty, dirty work clothes at the outset, but as Hale’s plot sways more in their favor, so too does their wardrobe, to the point that in a recreation of what really happened a century ago, when Hale is finally arrested, he jokingly turns himself in at the sheriff’s office dressed in his Sunday best like he’s going to a fancy dinner party. The transition is particularly noticeable with Ernest, who first appears looking like a version of Jack Dawson who made it to his 40s, wearing baggy jeans, a raggedy shirt, and a flat cap. As his courtship with Mollie progresses, she buys him a Stetson. From there his attire only gets more and more elaborate and high-end.
But even if none of these superlative elements were in play, the entire story could be carried by Lily Gladstone’s performance. My God this woman will shred your very soul. Every possible emotion you could experience watching this film, be it anger, excitement, humor, boredom, hope, or unfathomable anguish, you get it from her. She’s strong, witty, pragmatic, loving, romantic, caring, discerning, and assertive. In many ways she’s an ideal, and yet she still is subject to intolerable cruelty and wickedness through no fault of her own. She flirts with Ernest by calling him a native word for “coyote,” though wily he is very much not, because she understands the reality of the world around her. She has money, Ernest wants money, just like everyone else who tries to leech off her riches in some way. The key, to her, is figuring out if that’s all he wants. Is there stability in marriage? Is there mutual attraction? Can the man even live up to his given name (no word on if she ever got a chance to read Oscar Wilde’s play)? Eventually, she does see something genuine in him — and it’s something that actually exists in Ernest at the time, which makes it all that much more disheartening — leading to the decision that ultimately dooms her entire family.
By the time Jesse Plemons shows up as Tom White to solve the murders (a still compelling third act that salvages most of the procedural plot points from the earlier drafts), the tragedy is already fully formed. Hale has poisoned Ernest’s mind, while Ernest himself is poisoning Mollie’s body. At this point we in the audience are desperate for any kind of justice, some degree of catharsis. Part of it is because we’re all aware of the implications on modern society, from profiteering to exploiting minorities to outright censorship. The irony is not lost on the viewer that the point of the collaboration with the Osage and the refocus of the script was to make sure an untold version of American history gets its due (and from what research I’ve done, the film is surprisingly accurate to the actual events), and yet the very state where this took place, and where the movie was shot (bringing in tons of money to local government), has passed laws banning the teaching of certain histories and race relations, leading to uncertainty whether the book this was based on can be taught in schools for fear of offending white people. The Osage participated so they’d no longer be silenced, and yet the state government that benefitted from the production is trying to use legislation to further cement that silence.
But even if there wasn’t an almost direct correlation between the events of 100 years ago and the current world we occupy, you would feel the visceral nature of this travesty through Gladstone. Every time another member of her family is killed, every time Ernest betrays her due to his own shortsightedness and ignorance, every time she begs influences real and imaginary for some release from her torment, it’s felt deeply by the viewer. You just want to jump into the screen and put a stop to it all simply for her sake. She’s the strongest character in a film full of them, and it’s that strength that carries through and offers what little redemption the record can show. I am truly in awe of what Gladstone has accomplished here.
I’m not the biggest advocate of long films, particularly if they’re not accompanied by an intermission (how my bladder survived this and two separate screenings of Oppenheimer I’ll never know). Hell, my mind’s already boggled by the fact that Ridley Scott says there’s a “Director’s Cut” of his upcoming Napoleon that’s an hour longer than this! That said, if you’re taking the time necessary to tell the story properly, I’m all for it. Just like Christopher Nolan’s historical epic from the summer, Killers of the Flower Moon stunningly never drags despite its lengthy runtime because Martin Scorsese and his crew did exactly that. What began as a drama about the formation of the FBI turned into a deep, meaningful, and essential chronicle of one of the most ghastly chapters of American history — one that isn’t told nearly often enough — slathered in palpable tragedy that could only exist here in this country. Through De Niro he makes sure you understand the depths of Hale’s lust for money and ethnocentric malice. Through DiCaprio he shows the worst but most effective application of the “useful idiot.” Through Gladstone he never lets the consequences of greed go unnoticed and unchallenged. And through his tireless and respectful work with the Osage, he does his level best to show us all what horrors we as a people are capable of, in hopes history will never repeat itself.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s your favorite Scorsese work? What other dark secrets of American history need to be brought to cinematic light? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!