Producers: Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Martin Scorsese and Daniel Lupi Director: Martin Scorsese Screenplay: Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Scott Shepherd, Sturgill Simpson, Tommy Schultz, Ty Mitchell, Gary Basaraba, Barry Corbin, Everett Waller, Talee Redcorn, Yancey Red Corn, Tatanka Means, Charlie Musselwhite, Pat Healy, Steve Whitting, Steve Routman, Pete Yorn, Michael Abbott Jr., Larry Sellers Steve Eastin, Eldon Henson and Katherine Willis Distributor: Paramount/Apple+
Martin Scorsese’s new film is one of the most eagerly anticipated of the year, and it meets, indeed exceeds, expectations. Based on David Grann’s 2017 best-seller, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an epic-length picture about the so-called Osage Indian Murders of the early twentieth century, a constellation of killings of Native Americans of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma by locals intent on stealing the oil-based wealth of tribal families. As such it represents, in the broadest sense, an effort to portray the mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans in the nation’s history and a determination to redress the negative portrayal of them common in Western movies, a purpose reinforced by Scorsese’s obvious commitment to depict the Osage culture with accuracy and sensitivity.
But in fashioning their adaptation of Grann’s book for the screen, Scorsese and his collaborator Eric Roth have also chosen to shift the focus of the narrative, which on the page is basically a police procedural centered on the investigation by agents of the recently created Bureau of Investigation (soon to be rechristened as the FBI) that ultimately disclosed the wide-ranging conspiracy, to something more personal—an examination of the marriage of one of the conspirators to an Osage woman as a means of eventually acquiring control of her family’s land. That more intimate story is, of course, set against the background of the entire heinous enterprise, but it gives the film a piercing emotional core.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, his face an almost perpetual scowl of discomfort and uncertainty), arrives in Fairfax, Osage County as a World War I veteran looking for opportunity. That’s provided by his uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a rancher who presides over the area as a supposedly beneficent friend of his Osage neighbors. Hale has already taken Ernest’s hard-nosed brother Bryan (Scott Shepherd) into his home, and he does the same with Ernest, who becomes a cabbie, in which capacity he strikes up a relationship with Mollie Kyte (Lily Gladstone), whom he regularly chauffeurs. Eventually they marry.
Mollie’s family is the target of Hale’s plot to secure control over the Kyte land by systematically taking advantage of the deaths of her mother (Tantoo Cardinal) and her sisters Anna Brown (Cara Jade Myers) and Minnie (Jillian Dion), as well as her brother-in-law Henry Roan (William Belleau) and cousin Reta (JaNae Collins). Sometimes their removal is achieved simply by awaiting the outcome of untreated diabetes, a common affliction; but in other instances a more violent approach is required, whether it be a bullet to the head, preferably disguised as a suicide, or an “accidental” explosion that annihilates a house in which the target is sleeping. In Mollie’s case, as in some others, poison will be the means, administered by her husband via tainted insulin shots.
Hale’s audacity is explicable because of the availability of men in his orbit he can easily bend to his will, whether they be the Burkhart brothers, who are dependent on his largesse and subject to his demands (enforced by seemingly reasonable admonitions, or by harangues and even corporal punishment), or the surfeit of rough fellows who have little compunction about murder, especially of those they look down on as inferiors. Local officials—whether they be lawmen, judges, doctors, coroners, undertakers, shop owners or bankers who control the allocation of funds to tribal members deemed “incompetent” to handle their own financial affairs—will not interfere, because they’re implicated in the same sort of theft-by-murder; the film makes clear that killings by others are a common occurrence. And tribal leaders are powerless, no longer warriors themselves and with little influence with the local authorities who might intervene; even private detectives hired by the tribe will be summarily dealt with.
Effective intervention comes from outside—Washington D.C., where Mollie goes to seek help—with the arrival of agents from the BI led by laconic ex-Texas Ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons). They quickly focus their attention on Ernest Burkhart and Hale, and methodically uncover the truth, turning accomplices into witnesses. Hale remains defiant, brazenly proclaiming his rectitude and ability to beat all charges, but Ernest is torn. He truly loves Mollie despite what he’s doing to her, and she wants desperately to believe that he wouldn’t hurt her; he vacillates between turning on his uncle and refusing to testify against him as the federal prosecutor (John Lithgow) and Hale’s defense attorney (Brendon Fraser) face off in and outside the courtroom.
Scorsese’s presentation of this horrifying episode in the history of unrestrained, prejudiced rapacity is at once crammed with incident and solemn. Shot in luminous tones by Rodrigo Prieto on Oklahoma locations in an evocative environment fashioned by production designer Jack Fisk and costumer Jacqueline West and edited at a languidly engrossing pace by Thelma Schoonmaker to the throbbing, insistent drum beats of Robbie Robertson’s score, the film develops a hypnotic, nightmarish feel, with sequences like a fire at Hale’s ranch taking on a positively hellish vibe. One can quibble over the often elliptical, allusive narrative style, which doesn’t always clarify the connections among episodes; those who haven’t read Grann’s book might sometimes find themselves perplexed, and some viewers will find the expansiveness of the running-time excessive.
But to compensate Scorsese comes up with a “what happened” coda that Orson Welles would have envied: a flashy recreation of the 1935 radio broadcast about the case on “G-Men,” a series glorifying the FBI’s successes. Of course, the program can be seen in retrospect as yet another means of exploiting the Osage, this time for the benefit of J. Edgar Hoover’s reputation rather than “king” Hale’s greed.
DiCaprio and De Niro are both veterans of Scorsese films, of course, and both deliver impressively here, the former working up a storm as the conflicted Ernest and the latter providing his patented brand of grouchy malevolence under a paternalistic surface to Hale. But the real soul of the film is Gladstone, whose combination of steeliness and neediness goes far to making Mollie a multi-faceted, comprehensible figure whose quiet devotion to her husband, even in the face of his betrayal, is compellingly real; Cardinal matches her in soulfulness as her mother, whose love for her daughters—especially the wild, drunken, doomed Anna played with abandon by Myers—is balanced by a morose recognition of her family’s situation. Plemons brings a gentlemanly gravity to White, his surname ironically suggestive of the color of the savior one ordinarily expects in such tales of the rescue of marginalized people, and Lithgow his customary hauteur to the government prosecutor; Fraser, by contrast, overplays to disadvantage. The incisiveness of the actors in brief supporting turns, meanwhile, creates an endless parade of colorful, often repellent but fascinating, characters.
With “Killers of the Flower Moon” Scorsese adds to an already astonishing list of exceptional films, a remarkably wide-ranging lot that extends from the charm of a “Hugo” to the brutality of a “Taxi Driver.” All are not equally brilliant, of course, but even those that fall short of the highest standard are intriguing near-misses. Put this one high on the positive side of the ledger.