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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ (review)

Killers of the Flower Moon is flabby, unfocused, and at times, scattershot.  It’s also a masterpiece.

Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese develops and embellishes themes of greed, death, casual barbarism, and the degree to which we deserve (or do not deserve) redemption that have been percolating for his entire career and came into focus in his last film, The Irishman.  Throughout his legendary filmography he’s been preoccupied by the intersection of criminal violence and familial ties but this film, along with The Irishman, signal a major shift in his priorities that’s worth discussing.

Whereas films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino use the seductive power of violence to create moral ambiguity and play with the audience’s loyalties. In his two most recent films Scorsese seems much more interested in deconstructing this “rise and fall” narrative with protagonists who are foremost unknown to themselves being manipulated by charismatic power-brokers who insinuate themselves into their lives and trade on loyalty to ruthlessly advance their agenda.

In Killers that dichotomy plays out between Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Robert De Niro as his uncle, William King Hale.

The actual plot is very simple: years ago the Osage tribe of Native Americans discovered a major oil strike on their reservation and became obscenely wealthy– upending the established racial hierarchy of the West.

Over time Hale has positioned himself as a friend to the Osage but has systematically married his family into their tribe and then murdered over 100 people by the time the movie begins to consolidate their oil rights into his hands, all with the tacit approval of local and state government.

Burkhart begins the film as merely a gopher for Hale but when he catches the eye of Mollie (played by Lily Gladstone, and more on her later) who is strategically vital to Hale’s plans he’s drawn into the inner circle of Hale’s plan to whittle down the tribe. Eventually, the tribe becomes so desperate they entreat President Coolidge for help and agents of the newly formed FBI, led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons) descend upon the town and begin to pressure Burkhart to give up his uncle.

That’s a skeletal synopsis for such a long detailed film and the devil is in the details in this film.

There are so many casual moments of brilliance in this picture: a killer openly discussing the legality of murdering his adopted children for their oil money; a casual “atta-boy” from the Ku Klux Klan on parade; the surreal death imagery of the Osage tribe visualized; a spanking scene in a Masonic lodge. There are individual moments here as good as literally anything Martin Scorsese has ever done, and words of that size are not typed lightly.

I want to take a paragraph and highlight the work of Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart in the film. This is one of the most fearless performances by an American actor in recent memory. From her early scenes where she can be alternately seductive, dismissive, world weary, and nurturing to the portrayal of her body weakening from diabetes as her resolve is slowly crushed under the weight of so many deaths she was an absolute joy to watch throughout the film. Mollie serves as the moral center of the film, the only major character we like unconditionally. There’s a nice mirroring of Mollie’s relationship with Ernest and Ernest’s relationship with his uncle: we’re never sure how much she knows about her husband and is simply resigned to her fate at his hands just as we’re never sure until the ending how aware Ernest is that he’s being played by his uncle.

It’s those relationships that will compel to rewatch Killers for years to come. Scorsese has great faith in the audience that he never puts his cards on the table until the final moments of the film allowing looks, gestures, and broken Osage dialogue to paint a picture we can infer of the emotional loyalties of the major players.

It is not a perfect film: Di Caprio is too old for the role he’s been chosen for, and while I normally do not care about considerations like that it does become distracting in the opening act. This is also a true crime story where it takes two hours and fifteen minutes to get any competent law enforcement in the story to add pressure and suspense to the proceedings. It feels like Marty is so taken with the world he’s found here that he really wants to live in as long as he can and it isn’t always to the benefit of the story.

In the final analysis though: this is a film about the enforcement of racial hierarchy that’s entirely communicated by innuendo, and deception and so avoids literally every platitude that a story of this theme is prone to. The Tulsa massacre which occurred in the same state as the Osage murders and for much the same reasons, is only alluded to in Newsreel and that minor mention coalesces the entire structure of the film into focus with incredible economy. This is a film about white men angry that non-whites got wealthy and who have decided to get revenge. Throughout the film we’re introduced to characters who will not kill for money until they learn the target is an Indian.

The magic is that all of this is presented as matter-of-fact as it would have been to the historical people we’re discussing. There are no great speeches and no Oscar moments. This is a hard-ass crime story that doubles as a simmering epic meditation of America’s capacity for violence against its own minorities and it never betrays itself.


*  *  * *  *
Produced by Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Martin Scorsese, Daniel Lupi
Screenplay by Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese
Based on Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio,Robert De Niro, Llily Gladstone,
Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser


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