Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: Based on true events documented in the book by David Grann. In 1920s Oklahoma, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is employed by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) who works closely with the Osage people as they are murdered in the midst of an oil boom.
What Works: Killers of the Flower Moon is of a piece with Martin Scorsese’s other crime dramas, namely Goodfellas and The Departed and The Irishman, in that this is not a detective story but a tale of corruption. What’s going on is made plain. William Hale has positioned himself as a friend of the Osage while angling his family to inherit their land, oil and money through a combination of marriages and murders. Hale’s nephew Ernest is encouraged to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone) while also acting as the middle man to Hale’s campaign of murders. Crime stories are often moral dramas in which the protagonist’s integrity is at stake and Killers of the Flower Moon is an interesting and complex tragedy. The film focuses on Ernest with most of the story unfolding from his point of view as he becomes increasingly compromised and entangled in his uncle’s criminal scheme. The filmmakers never lecture us on the morality of what these people have done; Killers of the Flower Moon is rooted in the banality of evil. Ernest does seem to genuinely love his wife (or believes he does) while orchestrating the murders of her family. That tension makes Ernest and this movie fascinating and even subversive. Killers of the Flower Moon has some extraordinary performances, namely by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. This is one of DiCaprio’s best performances as he achieves a nuance that escaped a lot of his other roles while Gladstone is a showcase is subtlety. She doesn’t emote in an obvious way but the details of Gladstone’s performance reveal so much and the final scene between Ernest and Mollie is heartbreaking without resorting to melodrama. Despite running nearly three-and-a-half hours, Killers of the Flower Moon is perspicuous storytelling. There’s no extraneous material while allowing for a great deal of texture and period detail. The film has a vivid sense of time and place and it recreates 1920s Oklahoma without feeling like an idealized Hollywood version of the past.
What Doesn’t: The filmmakers tell this historical story of the murder of native people from the point of view of the white characters. That’s a legitimate approach and it makes sense insofar as the white characters’ actions drive the story and Ernest’s corruption is the most interesting aspect of it all. However, the Osage people are largely pushed to the side and are bystanders in much of the story. As a result, some interesting side issues are not addressed. The native women acknowledge that these white men are romancing them for their money and yet the women marry them anyway. The film never explores why. The FBI investigation is also underexplored. There is enough information to serve Ernest’s story but there’s clearly a larger web of corruption that’s only briefly sketched out. Ultimately, Killers of the Flower Moon might have been better as a miniseries than a feature film.
Bottom Line: Killers of the Flower Moon is a complicated crime drama and a character study that asks the audience to consider what evil actually looks like. The historical topic is so packed with angles and characters and ideas that shaving it down to a feature-length story inherently leaves out some interesting aspects but what’s here is exceptional.
Episode: #973 (November 12, 2023)