With its emotionally epic story, sprawling cast, and an undying ambitious vision from one of American Cinema’s true masters, “Killers of the Flower Moon” (an adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 true-crime bestseller) gives Martin Scorsese a late-career masterwork. This is a picture that shows great reverence for the Native American culture (in this case, the Osage) while firmly taking aim at the White money men who sought to murder the Indian people and profit from their deaths. Corruption, betrayal, and the blood-stained history of our nation’s past color this true tale; a story brought to life by a filmmaker who understands and respects the power of motion pictures.
The sociopolitical weight of Grann’s novel and its real life events hold firm in Scorsese and Eric Roth’s passionate screenplay, even as the writers take a different narrative path. Grann’s book followed both the serial murders of the Osage and the new D.C. “Bureau of Investigation” led by J. Edgar Hoover. Rather than taking the author’s parallel path and having a former Texas Ranger named Tom White as (predominantly) the main character, Scorsese and Roth open up their script. In doing so, the film achieves a deeper focus on the plague of racism toward Native Americans that has been (and continues to be) whitewashed for hundreds of years, while examining the tragic human story of those involved in what the Osage called the “Reign of Terror.”
Long displaced to the Oklahoma territories, the Indigenous Osage tribe discovers oil flowing under their ground, making them a rich and affluent community. As goes the way of our racist America, in the early 1920s, members of the Osage community began suffering from a sickness they would call the “wasting illness.” In 1921, two separate Osage were found murdered. The rich white men wanted to be richer and their eyes were on the Osage oil profits.
A tremendous Leonardo DiCaprio is Ernest Burkhart, a WWI veteran who has recently come home to Oklahoma to live with his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro landing one of his best roles in years). Hale is a well-off cattleman who is the most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing. Masquerading as an ally to the Osage people (even learning their language), Bill Hale is out to get his hands on their vast fortunes, and by any means he must apply to do so. De Niro’s performance is absolutely chilling. The actor uses the intensity of his gaze (something he hasn’t done in decades) to seduce and submit his nephew and many of the region’s Osage population. Even those who doubt him cannot help but bend the knee to the power he holds. Hale’s words are direct, yet there is sinister meaning behind each carefully dictated sentence. What he reveals to his nephew about the way he sees the Native Americans is inhuman; mirroring the racist rhetoric coming from certain politicians of today. In every look and every tone, De Niro captures the eerie malevolence of the character.
Where his uncle is smart, Ernest is slow-witted, but his natural charm gets him by, endearing him to Mollie (the treasure that is Lily Gladstone). Meeting as her “cabbie”, the two become enamored of one another. Even though his uncle suggested that he should marry an Osage so the inheritance can eventually be siphoned to him, Ernest grows real feelings for Mollie, and she to him. It takes some time, as we can see her understandable distrust of the White man, but Mollie warms to Ernest and they fall in love, eventually marrying.
The murders begin and unnatural death sweeps through the Osage citizens, but Mollie believes in the love between them. She holds as steady as possible to the hope that Ernest is not involved in this present evil, although the film doesn’t hide his part in his uncle’s sinister plans. Mollie is the film’s center, as the character is caught between the two men (Hale and Ernest) who could bring down her people’s way of life and endanger her own. To live in fear of everyone is harrowing, but to feel unsafe with the one you love will crush your soul.
Gladstone’s Mollie is backed into a corner that seems impossible to escape. As death surrounds her people, it has found its way into Mollie’s home. The diabetic medicine prescribed to her from Hale’s physician is slowly killing her. The audience wants to believe that Ernest isn’t fully aware of what his uncle is asking him to do, but it quickly becomes clear that he knows very well the “medicine” he is giving to his wife is bringing a slow death. As Ernest struggles with doing his uncle’s bidding against the love for his wife, Mollie’s faith is shattered along with her well being. The safety of their blessed home is now a slowly darkening tomb.
Lily Gladstone gives a subtle and graceful performance, as Mollie carries the pain, betrayal, and tragedy of the Native American people in her every breath. The character is the heart of the film and, dominating every moment, Gladstone gives the performance of the year.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” covers a lot of story and is filled with many great characters, every role cast and performed to perfection. Tantoo Cardinal is Mollie’s mother “Lizzie Q”. While she has some good moments, her final scene is one of devastating beauty that speaks to the power of Native American beliefs. Jillion Dion is “Minnie”, Mollie’s sister, who has become inexplicably sick while her wild-child sister “Anna” (Cara Jade Meyers) will become another tragic pawn in Hale’s quest for fortune.
In the film’s final hour, the F.B.I. comes calling, led by Jesse Plemons’ Tom White. Decked out in a wide cowboy hat, dark suit, and boots, Plemons is understated excellence. As Hale and his minions have been the evil in the town for too long, Tom White is their menace. Scorsese shoots the character in low angles and always with White’s brim pulled tight. With a stern but kind demeanor and direct manner, Plemons is the quiet justice that will bring it all down. Add to that the dozens of smaller roles that are made memorable by their design and casting.
The final courtroom sequences feature John Lithgow as prosecutor Peter Leaward and Brendan Fraser as W.S. Hamilton, Hale’s defense attorney. As the two battle in the court, the bridges that connect Ernest and his uncle will burn to the ground.
Already doing some of his finest work, the sequence gives DiCaprio a stunning monologue. Scorsese doesn’t cut away, holding the frame on Ernest as he gives his confession to his wife (who is in the courtroom), the Osage people, and to the world. This powerful moment is an admittance of guilt for the hundreds of year of genocide and colonialism that almost destroyed the Native American nations. In this moment, DiCaprio will sicken you, anger you and break your heart, as Ernest realizes that shame might be all he has left.
It is a pleasure to have a filmmaker such as Martin Scorsese who (at 80) continues to find projects that challenge him. A large percent of modern filmmakers fail to step outside of their directorial comfort zones bringing cinema closer and closer to losing its artistry. Working with his longtime colleague, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese paints an aesthetically gorgeous portrait and captures the beauty of the Osage people, their culture, and the lands they inhabit; each shot breathing in emotional rhythm with Thelma Schoonmaker’s complex editing and Scorsese’s vision.
Peeling back the violence and murderous bigotry, at its heart, the picture is a tale of love. Mollie and Ernest’s souls are forever connected and (regardless of her husband’s actions) their love is pure, until the fires of betrayal burn it to ash.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a tremendous motion picture; an epic dramatic thriller wrapped in history. Laid bare, is the soul of a crooked and racist America built on sin, yet through its powerful love story, it is a film that is heartbreakingly human.
By the final moment, in a sequence of complete originality, Scorsese turns what could be the usual on screen “what happened to the characters” paragraphs into a “True Crime” radio program. The host and actors tell of the characters’ fates. Scorsese cameos as the final actor, giving voice to Mollie and her final days, moving our souls and forever burning her life into our memories.
As the film ends, the screen becomes an Osage ceremony in full power. As their singing and drums fill the air, Scorsese pulls up, farther and farther, until the screen is filled with a community of people dancing and celebrating life; growing and surviving. The Osage people are strong, as are all Native American tribes. In this brilliant and devastatingly moving final image, we understand.
As Chief Crazy Horse spoke, “Upon suffering beyond suffering, the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world of broken promises, selfishness and separations, a world longing for light again.”
Killers of the Flower Moon
Written by Eric Roth & Martin Scorsese (Based on the novel by David Grann)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Cara Jade Myers, Jessie Plemmons, Tantoo Cardinal, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser