In some ways, a Martin Scorsese Western doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. His films tend to involve inner-city realities, with a gritty emphasis on intimately modern power struggles. Yet when it comes to Killers of the Flower Moon, adapted from the best-selling nonfiction book which covers one of the most shameful chapters in American history, it certainly feels like a story tailor-made for him. It’s a story about a society undone by greed, featuring “protagonist” villains who are so stupid only their own wealth could save them from being caught.
It is both an intimate exploration of a guilty man’s psyche and a grandiose look at the way this country was formed – in ways both good and bad. And it is a crime thriller that never forgets the victims, forcing audiences to reconcile with the horrors only see through the eyes of our main characters. While the form has grown, it is the same level of scrappiness and condemnation that made Taxi Driver and Goodfellas the successes that they were. And like all Scorsese films, it is continued proof why he is one of the greatest directors of all time.
In the early 1920s, the richest people on Earth all resided in Osage County, Oklahoma. The Osage Natives had been forced into the region during the country’s efforts to “expand,” and were intentionally given rocky, inhospitable territory by the U.S. government. However, thanks to some shrewd negotiations by their tribal leaders, the Osage managed to maintain the rights to whatever existed on their land – which happened to include the greatest oil reserve in the nation. Their wealth became the envy of the world – which made it far too easy for wolves to descend, especially when so few of the nation’s leaders cared if members of the tribe began dying off.
Enter into this world Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a simpleminded man fresh out of the military, looking for work with his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy cattle baron. To the public, Hale is a prominent ally to the Osage people, speaking their language and participating in their holy ceremonies. However, money is money, and Hale has a plan for his nephew. So Hale orchestrates for Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a Native woman from a big family. And when Mollie’s relatives start dying off, the family’s oil headrights start working their way closer and closer to Ernest. The question remains: does Ernest really love his wife, and how far is he willing to go in pursuit of her wealth?
Scorsese possesses a unique gift for compositing so many different styles, stories, themes, and techniques into a riveting two-to-four hour experience. His films are, all at once, grandiose epics, social commentaries, and intimate character studies. We spend just as much time learning what makes Mollie and Ernest tick as we do exploring the extreme injustices inflicted upon the Osage. Perhaps this is because they are one in the same: Ernest’s conflicted (yet entirely guilty) role in the murders is fascinating, and the level of his ineptitude is almost comical. Yet if he’s so stupid, and feels so obviously conflicted and guilty, how could these crimes go on for as long as they did?
The answer, as Scorsese carefully lays out (and perhaps indicts the audience by forcing them to identify with the perpetrators), is that ultimately, everyone is complicit. Even with all the money in the world, the Osage couldn’t escape from underneath the thumb of an ultimately racist, broken system. Using innovative sequences, segues, and asides, Killers shows us the different ways the U.S. government tried to keep the Osage from claiming their wealth, utilizing corrupt doctors and lawyers to keep them under conservatorships. If an Osage tribal member was murdered, it would be cast off as a suicide – no matter how blatant or heinous the crime. And what’s more, everyone is in on it – characters who show up as witnesses and Good Samaritans are later revealed to be in on the schemes, or marching through town with the Ku Klux Klan.
Scorsese’s film is about what we, as human beings, are willing to ignore on every level. Ernest is willing to overlook how vile his actions are due to his alleged love for his wife. Meanwhile, it is the film’s eternal mystery how much Mollie – the film’s most observant and tragic character – is willing to ignore or dismiss because of her love for her husband. And on a macro scale, it is about how much we, as Americans, were willing to overlook for reasons as varied as racism, greed, or just plain indifference.
After all, it is almost a meta-commentary within the filmmaking that this story and budget would neither be made at this budget or seen on this scale if the film had focused on the Osage, as opposed to villains who could be played by Leo and De Niro? Killers holds up a mirror to this behavior and our own culpabilities, forcing us to witness these crimes in slow, excruciating fashion. By the time we realize that the major town events have shifted from mostly Native faces to mostly white, it is too late.
Yet through all this trauma, Scorsese finds his soul not in the tragedy, but the beauty. This is a film about the perseverance of the human spirit as much as it is an indictment of inhumanity, and Killers successfully brings to life a culture many viewers won’t be familiar with. The film’s best-staged moments aren’t the plots or the murders, but weddings, dances, and religious events – in essence, their very way of life.
One of the film’s finest moments features nothing more than a group of women sitting around and gossiping about the men in their lives. It’s a beautiful, intimate moment that introduces us to several characters not through the devastation that would befall them, but through joy and love. It is not insignificant that the film chooses to end not on J. Edgar Hoover’s propaganda show spinning the narrative, but on a celebration by the tribe that lived and endured, against all odds.
As is often the case with Scorsese films, every actor from the top down gives memorable, emotional performances. DiCaprio is certainly strong in his role, taking a well-written character and bringing him to life in equally haunting and hilarious stupidity. He captures the complexity of a man stupid enough to be duped, but still fully aware and willing of the heinous acts he commits. Equally strong is De Niro, so vile and confident that it’s hard to know what his intentions are beyond just generally being the devil. Few lines in any Scorsese film have been as haunting as his claim regarding a longtime friend “I take care of my fellow man and my best friend…not to mention he’s worth $25,000.”
Yet outacting all of their co-stars is Lily Gladstone, who controls the film from the moment they emerge onscreen. Gladstone is capable of conveying so much with their eyes, showing us what it’s like to navigate a world that Mollie knows hates her, and where her only weapon is a series of smiles and looks. It’s a commanding, human performance, and one which Scorsese rightly hinges the entire film upon. As the FBI agent at the heart of the case, Plemons is serviceable as Tom White – although it’s hard to think that the young character actors is slightly miscast as the elder statesman lawman. And rounding out the big names, Brendan Fraser is perfectly cast as a grandiose, sleazy defense attorney.
However, as is often the case with Scorsese films, some of the most memorable performances come from smaller actors who relish the opportunity to shine. This includes Cara Jade Myers as Mollie’s alcoholic sister, full of vitality and charisma from her first appearance onscreen. This includes Ty Mitchell as inept criminal John Ramsey, who seems to possess a conscience yet never shows he has any qualms with what he’s doing. There’s Louis Cancelmi as Kelsie Morrison, so precisely sleazy and disgusting as one of the Burkharts’ accomplices (his big scene is one of the most jaw-dropping of the lot). And in the film’s most heartbreaking turn, there’s William Belleau as Henry Roan, arguably one of the film’s most tragic characters.
Killers of the Flower Moon is yet another masterful example of master storytelling on display from a living master. It’s long in the tooth, weaving in and out of its narrative like history unfolding before us, yet never fully lo. In watching Killers, we are watching what Scorsese does best: craft a riveting, powerful story that ensnares the audience before holding up a mirror to their faults, missteps, and sins. It’s long, and painful, and frankly honest. And it emerges as a strong example of what a late-in-life director can still accomplish this far into their career.
Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters and available to rent on VOD; it will premiere on Apple TV in the coming weeks