Killers of the Flower Moon – Review. By Daniel Rester.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese is about to turn 81 and he is still going strong as a visionary filmmaker. He has had quite the run lately, with his last three narrative films The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Silence (2016), and The Irishman (2019) being among his best work in my opinion. His latest picture Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the gripping 2017 nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, isn’t quite up there with those three films. However, it just goes to show how great Scorsese is when I am saying that and yet Killers of the Flower Moon is still one of the best things I have seen this year.
The film mostly takes place in the 1920s and explores the real-life murders of many Osage people in Oklahoma. The Osage in the area had become wealthy due to finding oil on their land. It didn’t take long for the snakes to show up in the form of white people trying to take what wasn’t theirs. This included cattle rancher William King Hale (Robert De Niro) and his dimwitted nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who married an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and helped Hale eliminate her family members. Eventually a BOI agent named Tom White (Jesse Plemons) helped solve the case.
Killers of the Flower Moon finds Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth mixing elements of the crime drama and Western genres together as the film explores this horrific tragedy in American history that hasn’t had quite the attention it deserves. It was a huge case for the BOI (later FBI), and Grann’s book focuses on White and the investigation much more than Scorsese does here. While Scorsese doesn’t dismiss the BOI’s involvement, he smartly reins in the story to a more personal level by primarily focusing on the relationship between Mollie and Ernest and Hale’s manipulation of those around him.
Bringing DiCaprio and De Niro together in a Scorsese film has been something dreamt of by cinefiles for years as the two have been acting muses in different phases of Scorsese’s career. The pairing doesn’t disappoint. DiCaprio plays foolish and selfish quite well as Burkhart while De Niro commands every scene he is in as the subtly evil Hale. This is a man who pretended to be friends with the Osage people, and even spoke their language, but sneakily destroyed their lives. De Niro’s work as Hale is maybe his best performance of the past two decades.
The heart of the film belongs to Mollie as she struggles with her family collapsing around her. Gladstone is a revelation in the role, though the second half of the film does give her less to do as Mollie becomes ill. The actress does a lot with just her deep eyes throughout the film.
Cara Jade Myers also shines as the hot-tempered Anna Brown, one of Mollie’s sisters. Tommy Schultz deserves mention as well. He plays Blackie Thompson, a robber-turned-witness who becomes key to the BOI investigation; Schultz perfectly matches verbal fire with DiCaprio in one memorable scene. The rest of the lengthy supporting cast is strong too, with people like John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser even showing up.
Scorsese’s creative collaborators are on top of their game. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork is fluid throughout as he moves us through the brilliant settings crafted by production designer Jack Fisk. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker finds a nice rhythm and makes the 3 hour and 26 minute runtime feel less than that. The late Robbie Robertson’s music score aids Scorsese’s staging and Schoonmaker’s flow as well as it manages to be both tense and soothing in many scenes.
I do wish that Scorsese and Roth’s screenplay focused on some of the Osage supporting characters – or at least Mollie – a bit more since the Osage are the victims here. Even so, the film does better at representing the Osage than the book did. Scorsese tells the main story well even if some of those supporting players get lost along the way.
Killers of the Flower Moon is another triumph from one of our greatest living directors. It’s a long film and not every single choice works, but it’s still very informative and entertaining. Even in his eighties, Scorsese is telling fascinating stories and taking risks.
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