Western crime saga Killers of the Flower Moon reunites Scorsese with some of his favourite actors
The 26th film from godfather of modern American cinema Martin Scorsese sees him reunited with frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio for a gruesome tale of murder and corruption inflicted upon the Osage Nation of Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma. It’s a true story, based on an adaption of the book ‘’Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann.
Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) is recently returned from the First World War when he comes to live with his wealthy rancher uncle William “King” Hale in Osage Indian territory. Hale sets him up with a job as a taxi driver and explains the unusual local dynamic. When oil had been discovered on the Osage Reservation at the turn of the century it made the indigenous community incredibly rich. Some 20 years later and they are the ruling elite of the town, spending frivolously and employing white settlers as their labourers, chauffeurs and maids.
Hale, at least on the outside, appears to have adapted well to this society where the social norms of the time have been flipped upside down. He claims to have great respect for the Osage people; he’s knowledgeable about their customs, speaks their language and has many friends on the tribal council. He even suggests that Ernest does as many other local white men do and marry an Osage woman, pointing out that if he can find someone with a family oil claim then he’ll be set up for generations.
Ernest does end marrying an Osage woman, the headstrong Mollie (Lily Gladstone) who had been a regular in his cab. But a reign of terror is sweeping across the territory as more and more Osage people are being found dead – quite clearly being murdered for their oil claims – and the law is doing nothing about it. As increasing numbers of her family members are affected by the murders Mollie is desperate to find some sort of help, but little does she know that Ernest’s greed is at risk of getting him swept up in the plot behind the murders.
This is film making on an epic scale from Scorsese, possibly the grandest and most all-encompassing piece of work he’s produced in an absurdly distinguished career. A true saga that incorporates countless differently aligned characters and groups across a period spanning some 15 years, he goes beyond obvious Western tropes like the old ‘’Hatfield’s and McCoy’s” or “Cowboys and Indians” to capture a complicated society that seems forward thinking on the surface, but in which the stain of corruption is slowly leaking outward.
It’s beautifully captured by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who sets up some shots that already seem iconic. (Pietro was also the DOP on Barbie, what a year this guy’s having!) An early scene of Osage people in traditional regalia dancing in the oil, or a later one of a ranch house shot through the haze and heatwave of a wildfire remain burned into your memory long after the credits roll.
The acting performances are universally incredible, and I’d echo the sentiments of many that this is DiCaprio’s best work. Ernest is that rare (somewhat) morally grey character, the writing making it plain to see that he is not a smart man (Mollie is the brains in the relationship) and all of his actions are a result of his susceptibility to manipulation. DiCaprio’s portrayal of the struggle between his love for his wife and his murderous greed is multifaceted, ever changing with the right whisper in his ear, yet painful to behold.
De Niro is also doing his best work in years. Though his accent work sometimes gets a little Colonel Sanders-y he is chillingly nefarious. A wolf in sheep’s clothing; his outright belief that he is an upstanding and well-respected member of the community all whilst doing dodgy deals behind closed doors is genuinely unhinged.
Gladstone is hotly tipped for an Oscar for her work in Flower Moon and it would be well deserved. Mollie is the heart and soul of this film, always bringing us back to the human victims at the heart of the story when we risk getting too caught up in all the gun-slinging and moonshine. The physical and emotional pain she manages to capture on screen is gruelling.
My only complaint about the epic Flower Moon is that it is far too long at an excruciating three and a half hours. Whilst Ernest and Mollie’s early relationship and the start of the murders are covered fairly quickly there’s a solid chunk in the middle that moves interminably slowly – it’s all good stuff yes, but I was at risk of zoning out. (Seeing this film at 8am probably didn’t help.)
Once the newly minted FBI (led by an excellent Jesse Plemons) finally turn up to investigate the murders things pick up again though, and the last hour is nigh on perfect cinema. The final conversation between Ernest and his uncle Hale really reminded me of the iconic diner scene in Heat – two actors going tit for tat, feeding off each other’s brilliant performances whilst delivering an absolutely perfectly written argument that once and for all tells you who they each are and what they stand for.
An incredible achievement, it doesn’t feel superlative to already say that Killers of the Flower Moon is going to be a modern classic. Scorsese, De Niro and DiCaprio are all at best they’ve been in a decade if not longer, and this film will surely launch Lily Gladstone as a certifiable megastar. See it on the big screen if you can.
Killers of the Flower Moon is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is out in cinemas on 20th October 2023 and will be available on Apple TV+ after.