To call this film powerful would be an insult. Afflicting is apt.
I’m ashamed to say I was excited to see “Killers of the Flower Moon”, because that feels reductive of what this is trying to achieve. Naturally, a filmmaker as revered as Martin Scorsese and actors as prolific as Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro will spike my interest. They’re some of the best for a reason. However, being excited for a film for those reasons, inherently devalues its importance.
Scorsese isn’t interested in being a flashy auteur or making the year’s big hit. He’s in the twilight of his career and life, and his art reflects that. “Killers of the Flower Moon” may have been marketed as a big historical epic, but in reality, it’s a thorough examination of white greed.
The film is about the Osage Native American murders of Fairfax, Oka. that took place from the late 1910s until the early 1930s. Though indigenous actors were cast and involved in the process of the film, it is from the perspective of the main arbiters of the atrocities. I don’t see this as a detriment to the film, as Scorsese uses this perspective as a condemnation of the killers, letting our empathy for the Osage be inherent. That being said, there is room for the Osage to have more involvement in the story.
It isn’t unusual for Scorsese to have the protagonist of his films portrayed as terrible people, but it’s different for him to view them through an objective lens. This isn’t your typical crime film such as “Goodfellas,” and Scorsese makes sure of that. The mobsters of “Goodfellas” lived life through rose-tinted glasses, never stopping to think about how their crime affects their victims. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the crime is deeply personal—a crime of murder and racism.
What’s horrifying is the normalcy of the characters’ actions. For as horrific and disturbing the film can be at times, it’s mostly quiet. Life-changing decisions are made in casual conversations between family members. One moment, characters will have dinner and hug each other. The next moment, they pull each other aside and plan which family member will be killed off next. The true evil of these crimes comes not from the hate that facilitates our main character’s hearts, but from the guise of love.
William Hale, the wealthy, white oligarch in Fairfax, is the catalyst for the murders. He delegates and manipulates those in his family to carry out these crimes, while also presenting himself as a saint and friend of the Osage Nation. Earnest Burkhart goes to Fairfax after World War I to work with his uncle and brother. He’s manipulated into Hale’s scheme under the guise of posterity for his family- first for his immediate family, and then for the family he builds with Mollie Brown, his Osage wife. Burkhart and his family seep into Mollie’s family like parasites, either waiting for them to die due to sickness, or arranging for them to be murdered.
Late career Scorsese does not cut on action; he makes you sit through its effects. The three-hour 26-minute length of the film never drags or feels dull. This is the most conscious and deliberate film Scorsese has made. The length of the film helps in thoroughly capturing the story. Unlike other historical films, nothing is ever sensationalized or quickly glossed over. When a horrific act takes place on screen, you’re there from start to finish. It’s procedural.
This methodical approach to the film does not work without seeing the way these characters view themselves. Burkhart believes in the lie that what he is doing is out of posterity for his family. He is given a job by his already wealthy uncle and marries into a wealthier family, but because of greed, he leaves a trail of destruction whilst holding onto the lie of love.
When you have the finest actors of their generation starring in your film, you get some of the finest performances. DiCaprio delivers a genuinely impressive performance that is a clear standout from the rest of his filmography. De Niro gives his best performance in decades, one where his character’s snakelike personality says it all.
The clear standout of the film, however, is Lily Gladstone. Her performance as Mollie Brown/Burkhart is one of the year’s best. Her strength in the role comes from her physicality and the way she channels the pain her character faces. She isn’t yelling or having a crying monologue, but the looks she gives will split you in two.
As with the story and thematic weight, the technical aspects of the film are done with care and reverence. This is one of the few $200 million films that came out this year that uses the budget wisely. The production and costume design are insane. Never did it feel like I was watching a recreation of the 1920s, as you’re immediately sucked into that era. The costume design is complex, detailed and shows off what high-end fashion would be for indigenous people at the time.
Rodrigo Pietro is a cinematographer that’s been on my radar for some time now, but his latest collaboration with Scorsese has convinced me of the pure skill he has. There’s not a flashy look to the film, but the clean presentation and interesting use of shadows adds greater depth to the dark tone. Scorsese films are known for their tracking shots, and the camera moves with the ambition of a new filmmaker infused with artisanship of a master.
Musically, this film intrigued me. This is Robbie Robertson’s last album before his passing in August, and his first full-length score. The score is atmospheric but takes inspiration from blues rather than orchestral instrumentation often found in film scores. I find this interesting because for a film as dark and horrific as this, you could have a tense, string and brass heavy score, but the use of guitars, harmonicas and some percussion brings more meaning to the look and tone of the film.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a moving yet afflicting film that left me speechless. Scorsese is grappling with the legacy of his art, making every minute he has left count. This is the most conscious and intentional film he’s made. The decision to focus on the white perpetrators of the Osage murders is used as a means of self-condemnation. You’re not spared a single moment, as even the smallest acts still are indicative of deep prejudice. The sheer reverence and craftmanship on screen further elevate this film. Now, since the story of the Osage has been told, this will open opportunities for indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories.