- Hans Weber
- December 7, 2023
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ movie review: De Niro and DiCaprio in Scorsese’s epic Americana
A complex plot to murder dozens of members of the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma unravels to devastating effect in Killers of the Flower Moon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and opens in Prague cinemas this weekend (note for local viewers: a few scenes are in Sioux, subtitled only in Czech in local cinemas). This monumental 3.5-hour epic is overflowing with an abundance of cinematic riches, and ranks right alongside director Martin Scorsese‘s finest achievements.
The Osage were one of the few American Indian nations to purchase their own reservation, and retain rights to their land. They benefitted greatly from this when oil was discovered on Osage land in the late 19th century, and almost overnight became some of the richest people in the world. As Killers of the Flower Moon illustrates during its breathless opening montage, white men can make a buck in Osage land, too — legally and otherwise.
Killers of the Flower Moon stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a WWI veteran who opens the film on a train bound for Osage County with a glint of hope in his eye. There, he’s reunited with older brother Byron (Scott Shepherd) and uncle King Hale (Robert DeNiro), a local cattleman and politician who has been one of the beneficiaries of Osage wealth… and a string of recent deaths within the Nation.
King puts Ernest to work as a driver for wealthy Osage residents who are given a monthly stipend as the United States government has deemed them incompetent to manage their own money. They include Mollie (Lily Gladstone, in a standout performance), one of four daughters of Lizzy Q (Tantoo Cardinal), who holds a valuable Osage headright that grants oil money payments.
As Ernest begins a flirtatious relationship with Mollie, King reveals the first step in an intricate plot that will tragically unfold over the first two hours of Killers of the Flower Moon. If Ernest should marry Mollie and bear children, her Osage wealth would merge with Hale’s empire. And if something should happen to her mother and sisters, and ultimately herself…
Ernest Burkhart is one of the more fascinating protagonists ever seen in a motion picture, a charismatic but ignorant dolt so efficiently and thoroughly manipulated that he loses all sense of personal agency. Scorsese frames Killers of the Flower Moon from Ernest’s perspective, so that the intricate plot to wipe out Mollie’s family is never explicitly verbalized, and by the time Ernest (and the audience) is in on the conspiracy its too late to crawl out of it.
DiCaprio is utterly compelling in what is one of his most uncharacteristic roles – and likely his finest performance to date. Burkhart was fully complicit in everything but never directly responsible and certainly not the mastermind behind any it; he has multiple chances to redeem himself, but when left to his own devices he’s too ignorant and vapid to muster up any sense of virtue.
Killers of the Flower Moon was adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) from the 2017 novel of the same name by David Grann. The book dedicated more time to the investigation of the Osage murders by the newly-formed FBI and subsequent court case, but these events are confined to the final act of the movie. Jesse Plemons and Tatanka Means appear as FBI agents, with John Lithgow a public prosecutor and a scene-stealing Brendan Fraser as the Hale’s defense attorney.
It’s an unusual choice to dedicate so much of Killers of the Flower Moon‘s lengthy narrative to the men behind the murder plot, but Scorsese is fascinated by the evil that motivates them. Unlike the romanticized gangsters of Goodfellas, Casino, or The Departed, there’s no sense of honor or integrity at play here. Ernest Burkhart is not a bad man but an empty shell of one who conspires in acts of almost unimaginable horror simply because he was directed to do so by a charismatic father figure.
Parallels to contemporary political events are obvious; the dangers of utter ignorance have never been so harrowingly portrayed on screen.
In addition to compelling turns from DiCaprio and De Niro, the assorted lowlifes that are employed to carry out the killings and other crimes are played by a colorful cast of character actors including Louis Cancelmi, Pete Yorn, Tommy Schultz, Sturgill Simpson, and Ty Mitchell.
A wealth of riches help support Killers of the Flower Moon‘s epic storyline, and include gorgeous cinematography on location in Oklahoma by Rodrigo Prieto that rivals Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work on Oppenheimer for best of the year and an evocative, haunting soundtrack full of diverse sounds from Robbie Robertson (his final work before his death earlier this year) that recalls T Bone Burnett’s work on O Brother, Where Art Thou.
Killers of the Flower Moon may be criticized for not dedicating enough screen time to its victims, including Mollie, who is central to the narrative but somewhat underdeveloped (though Gladstone’s commanding performance helps keep her character in focus). But the film Scorsese has made is worth evaluating on its own merits, and not only rates among the best films of the year but one of the best in the director’s remarkable career.
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- Hans Weber
- December 7, 2023