Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s latest epic but punters who are looking for a rollicking, bombastic watch will be disappointed. Killers of the Flower Moon is a quieter and more thoughtful movie. Likewise, it does not neatly trace the lines set out by the book of the same name. Written in 2017 by David Grann, the book focuses on the formation of the FBI through the lens of the Osage murders. However, the film views the Osage murders through the lens of the relationships between the characters.
There is no mystery in Killers of the Flower Moon. The villains introduce themselves to us with their casual racism and lust for money. They are shown committing heinous acts, or arranging them, with none of the emotions we would expect. Greed and cunning is all that’s left of William Hale (Robert DeNero), the man known as King of the Osage Hills. DeNero’s performance is extremely believable as the sociopathic Hale, who unflinchingly orchestrates murder after violent murder.
Chief amongst the targets for his machinations are the family members of Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). She is married to Hale’s nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) and through their relationship Hale sees dollar signs. As a “full blooded” Osage, she has head rights – that is, rights to oil on her land. As more and more of her family are eliminated, a greater share of the profits goes to her, and by extension, her husband and his uncle.
Gladstone’s performance is the rare kind that ensures your eyes are drawn to her in every scene. She dominates and captivates, stealing even Leo’s limelight. In this way she is the visual focal point and the moral centre of the film. Not that DiCaprio is a slouch – the role of Ernest Burkhart allows him to show off his range as an actor. We’re accustomed to seeing him as the slick-talking polished gent, not the insipid and easily manipulated simpleton.
One of the only places the film falters is that it has no mystery at its heart. With none of the characters having any kind of arc or growth, it’s hard to get a sense of the pacing. The film focuses heavily on Mollie and her grief, Gladstone’s performance anchoring us in each moment, but she is less focal in the second half and there is a slight sense of unmooring.
Evil throughout the film
Although the style is a departure from Scorsese’s usual oeuvre, the themes are not. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that he has been testing the waters with his explorations of evil, power, and the men who abuse it, feeling his way down a path that was bound to end here eventually.
Killers of the Flower Moon is full of evil of all kinds. Cunning evil, like Hale; stupid evil, like Ernest; cruel evil like Ernest’s older brother Byron (Scott Shepherd), and myriad more. Scorsese has a storied history with depicting evil from its most casual to its most calculated. That is what Killers of the Flower Moon is about.
The diegetic finale of the film serves to reinforce a point that I think will be on many people’s minds as they come away from Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s the story of the Osage people and the true horrors they suffered at the hands of white Americans, but it’s told to us time and again by white Americans.
White people turned it into a radio drama in the 1930s. A white journalist brought us the thoroughly researched book in 2017. Now, a white director brings it to the big screen. Osage people were deeply involved in the research of the book and the film, but history is written by the victors. So it goes. Martin Scorsese is too good a director for this to be accidental.
A key factor to include in a film review is whether or not one recommends the film, and that is hard to say. It is undoubtedly worth watching, cinematically excellent, with a stirring, resonant score by Robbie Robertson.
The story is an important one, a tale as old as white people. Several of the actors and production team will deservedly win Oscars for this film. If you are a lover of film, or of history, you should go and see Killers of the Flower Moon. Just don’t expect to enjoy yourself.
Featured image credit: Apple TV/Paramount Pictures