Martin Scorsese is one of those filmmakers that I like to call a dream-maker. The consistent quality of his directing talent has resulted in some unforgettable stories. His latest film qualifies as that. Killers of the Flower Moon is epic in the best ways, full of excellent performances, and delves into an unforgettable true story.
The source material for Killers of the Flower Moon is the 2017 non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann. It tells about the real-life murders of a large number of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Under their agreement with the government, the Osage retained the mineral rights to the land taken from them. There turned out to be oil on it. The Osage were the richest people on the planet per capita for a certain period of time. That’s how lucrative the wells on Osage land were. They had chauffeurs, mansions, and more. Then the murders began.
This little-known piece of history makes Killers of the Flower Moon a uniquely American tragedy. The direction and performances make it thrillingly good. No, more than good. This is one of the best films of the year.
“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”
From the start, the script does a good job of translating the true events into a dramatic narrative. Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in Oklahoma and happily falls under the influence of his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale is powerful and conspicuously friendly with the Osage people. Except, that’s just for show. Ernest comes to learn that the Osage wealth is a strong temptation and puts them in danger.
Over the course of many years, various Osage die under mysterious circumstances. And because they are Native Americans, the deaths are not investigated. Ernest meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone) during this time. She is an Osage with a mother and a group of sisters. He doesn’t hide the fact that he loves money but he is also genuinely attracted to her. Hale’s hints that Mollie would inherit all her mother’s wealth if her sisters were out of the way is only the most subtle of his actions to get riches out of the Osage. And Ernest soon finds himself embroiled in the crimes even as he marries Mollie and has children with her.
Scorsese does a stellar job of staging these murders in a way that makes the audience feel how senseless they are. Di Caprio is especially good at conveying Ernest’s mounting stress as the murders circle closer and closer to Mollie. Meanwhile, Gladstone’s performance is stunning. Mollie suffers the loss of most of her family and Gladstone makes you feel every bit of it. In Gladstone’s hands, Mollie is reserved but with a core of confidence. Awards attention for her and Di Caprio would not surprise me at all.
“Expecting a miracle to make all this go away?”
The acting isn’t the only element that succeeds under Scorsese’s leadership. Rodrigo Prieto‘s cinematography makes a lasting impression. Certain shots and camera movements assist in the epic feel of the story. Such as a crane dolly back to reveal a horizon cluttered with oil derricks. But then others are more simple, allowing the deep themes to resonate. There is a definite visual aspect to this film’s examination of greed and the way the idea of the American dream turned into a nightmare for the Osage.
The length of the film is significant but doesn’t feel like a problem because the plot is steadily paced. However, actors Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, and Brendan Fraser only show up for the final section of the film when the newly formed FBI finally begins looking into the murders. The subsequent investigation and trial don’t provide enough time with these talented performers. Besides that, Scorsese makes an unusual story choice for the ending scene that just comes off as odd.
Those are paltry quibbles, though, when evaluating the entire experience of watching this film. Filmmakers demonstrate respect for the subjects of a real-life story when they dramatize it with authenticity. Scorsese does that, as dream-makers do. The Osage deserved to have their story told. This sad piece of their history is important to preserve as a piece of American history. As a work of cinema, Killers of the Flower Moon is superbly crafted. It is an intense drama and an epic history all at once.
4 1/2 stars out of 5
Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters.