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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ review: A history lesson with a view

By October 18, 2023November 1st, 2023No Comments6 min read
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio sit at a table in Killers of the Flower Moon

Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon is fittingly killer.

One thing that separates a Martin Scorsese movie from a _____ movie is the man’s dedication to narration through dramatic effect. Yes, yes, many of his most beloved features (Goodfellas, Casino, you know the drill) have that familiar, matter-of-fact narration. A character, usually the main one, lets us into their world and shows us the ropes. Scorsese’s imitators, of which there are many, tend to forget though that the now 80-year-old filmmaker doesn’t just narrate with words. He also narrates using dramatic action. His latest feature, Killers of the Flower Moon is one of his best at this, which is probably why he decided to do away with voiceover altogether.

Another reason might be the length. At 206 minutes, Killers of the Flower Moon is only the sixth longest of Scorsese’s movies, but that’s saying more about his other movies than this one, to be clear. Based on the 2017 book of the same name by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic crime drama with an expectedly Western twinge. The plot follows the real-life Osage Nation murders in 1920s Oklahoma, not long after oil was discovered on their tribal land, making these indigenous natives some of the richest people in the world per capita at the time.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

“Money flows freely here, now.”

It doesn’t take much of a detective to figure out who the culprits are, but the early goings of the film at least allow the “mystery” of it all sit with the audience as we settle in with young and hungry Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio in his best performance since The Wolf of Wall Street, which was also directed by…well, you know), a WW1 veteran whose gut injury has left him unable to do much frontier work besides chauffeur around wealthy Osage people.

One such person is Mollie (Lily Gladstone, completing a double hitter in 2023 after Fancy Dance earlier this year), a reticent Osage woman who gradually opens up to Ernest’s unique charms and eventually marries him. Turns out a lot of white men end up marrying Osage women in these parts, and as various people start dying, a lot of fingers start pointing every which way, mainly at the vagabonds coming in from out of town, desperate for oil work and visibly unnerved by the shifted hierarchy in power.

At the heart of this conspiracy is Ernest’s affable uncle, King (Robert De Niro, now completing his tenth film with Scorsese), who used to be the sheriff and basically runs the small town of Fairfax as its unofficial mayor of sorts. Though King vows to help discover the truth behind why so many Osage people are being murdered, it’s not until the FBI gets involved (with Jesse Plemons coming in here as a patiently tactical federal agent before the bureau was widely known) that the secrets start coming out in force.

“It’s just gonna be another tragedy.”

You’d think a film with this bleak and maudlin a synopsis would be more bleak and maudlin, but Scorsese adds his signature touch of gritty whimsy that makes the film positively his. There’s a lightness to much of the story, even some outright humor both visual and written that punctuates the well-rounded feel of this live-in, often desperate world.

When the marketing calls it a “true American film,” it’s not just pointing out the obvious, that it’s marking the darker reality of American history, however uncomfortable for those who hold the most privilege now. It’s also investigating the ways in which Americans unpack the unjust actions of their predecessors in order to cope with its ongoing ramifications. Florida Governor and history white-washer Ron DeSantis would probably despise this movie, is what I’m saying, which is certainly a point in its favor.

“When this money start comin’, we shoulda known it came with something else.”

Scorsese co-wrote the film with Eric Roth, and without having read the book myself, it’s unclear (to me at least) how Killers of the Flower Moon delivers as an adaptation. If its goal was to tell a succinct story, then a failure it is, but that certainly doesn’t seem to be the intent. On the surface, its somewhat repetitive formula (violent thing happens without justice, violent thing happens without justice, and so on) can be more than taxing and come off as redundancy for the sake of being “epic” on a superficial level. But Scorsese masterfully walks this fine line between dumping sequential horrors to build tension and actually delivering on said tension when everything finally comes to a head.

a group of Osage women, including Lily Gladstone, sit together in KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

It’s the sort of film that demands audience engagement and post-screening debate, particularly when it comes to how Scorsese and some of these performers depict the callous, almost mechanically distant and inconsonant attitudes of the people performing these murderous acts, despite being genial otherwise. If that isn’t American history in a nutshell. If The Irishman was a treatise on the futility of surviving a violent life of organized crime, then Killers of the Flower Moon is a somewhat simpler takedown of the American Dream, itself a nightmare for just about everyone who isn’t a white man, even when people of color manage to prosper in spite of a system rigged against them. It’s no wonder the film invokes the Tulsa massacre at one point, after all.

“They’re like buzzards circling our people.”

Artistically, the film is noticeably vacant and purposefully dull at times in its setting at purposeful moments — this is the most expensive film ever shot in Oklahoma, but cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Silence, The Irishman) avoids melodramatic shots of the frontier that take in the rosy nostalgia of this era. This is decidedly not that sort of movie and thankfully so considering the subject matter.

Still, the film’s most beautiful and striking palette is when we actually see the Osage people in their element, not surrounded by the common trappings of white society that go on to cripple their spirit. It’s the film’s systematic slow burn evaporation of their culture that turns a lack of cinematic flashiness into something substantial, visually. And certainly poetic in its own right.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

“We’re still warriors.”

For the performances, it’s hard to find a weak link in the bunch, more like a “who managed to stand out more than the other person at any given moment” exercise, and there’s typically no wrong answer. John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser are two of the bigger names who do much with little screen time, but the lesser-known actors portraying the Osage are the film’s true point of pride. Tantoo Cardinal and Cara Jade Myers (Mollie’s mother and sister, respectively) are two such standouts, along with William Belleau as Mollie’s brother-in-law, all of whom carry at least an entire short film’s worth of emotional impact with their handful of scenes, alone.

And yes, this is Lily Gladstone’s Oscar to lose, as the reports coming out of the film’s premiere at Cannes this past May already prophesied. If only DiCaprio and De Niro receive plaudits for their dynamic, heart-wrenching performances, then the entire point of Killers of the Flower Moon will be utterly lost on the awards circuit.

The bottom line.

Scorsese continues to be one of the few directors working today who can announce a nearly 4-hour movie and only attract more interest. And Killers of the Flower Moon likely won’t disappoint the true believers in that group. It’s a fantastically quick, sharp, and unrelenting epic that lands its message with the confidence of a tenured professor. And rightly so considering the fact that it covers a history almost no one actually learns in school. If this film can change that even a little, then perhaps its artistic contribution goes even beyond the four walls of a cinema.

Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters on October 20. Watch the trailer here.

Images courtesy of Apple TV+ and Paramount Pictures. Read more articles by Jon Negroni here.

Jon Negroni

Jon is one of the co-founders of InBetweenDrafts and our resident film editor. He also hosts the podcasts Cinemaholics, Mad Men Men, and Rookie Pirate Radio. He doesn't sleep, essentially.

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