In the depiction of a poisoned love story, Martin Scorsese’s film about the Osage Nation murders forgoes the legendary scope of David Grann’s book.
Killers of the Flower Moon Review:
This American epic about the 1920s genocidal conspiracy visited upon the Osage Nation is at its most potent and self-possessed when it sticks a finger in one of the other genres that bubble to the surface throughout its three-and-a-half-hour runtime. Director Martin Scorsese likes to think of “Killers of the Flower Moon” as the Western he always wanted to make.
The most prominent of them is a gangster drama that follows in the great footsteps of the director’s earlier films. They brought Scorsese back for another film packed with gruesome deaths, scathing voiceovers, and cutting conclusions about the corruptive spirit of American capitalism just when it appeared like “The Irishman” would have been his last word on his hallmark genre. Robbie Robertson’s beautifully anachronistic soundtrack nearly has you believing that the song “Gimme Shelter” would make it into the film thanks to its throbbing bass pattern.
Scorsese’s more personal kind of crime story is set against the uncomfortably broad background of the “Reign of Terror,” which followed an oil find that made members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma the wealthiest people per capita on planet Earth. David Grann’s original book, from which “Killers of the Flower Moon” is adapted, is a sprawling tale about the end of the Wild West and the beginning of the 20th century.
He spends about as much time on the modern sociopath who orchestrated the Osage slayings as he does on the old-fashioned cowboy who J. Edgar Hoover sent to stop him. Scorsese’s more concentrated version briefly acknowledges such seismic transformations in American history. It focuses on the villainous mastermind and his favorite lapdog, two shrewd bastards whose only grasp of the modern United States was the delusion that it rightfully belonged to them.
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As far as William Hale was concerned, the Osage were just caretakers of the riches that the United States had unwittingly given to the indigenous people of the Americas when it stole their land. The most disturbing parts of Scorsese’s film explain why Hale may have continued to believe that even after the Bureau of Investigation began to pursue him: he had a holy conviction that America was still a place where certain people could get away with a murder committed in the name of white progress.
Eric Roth’s screenplay, in contrast to David Grann’s novel, which was a sprawling conspiracy thriller that teased out the facts of the case while always keeping at least one eye fixed on America’s transition from myth to modernity, casually identifies the murderers as soon as it can in order to drill that much deeper into their relationship. Instead of ebbing and flowing, this “Killers of the Flower Moon” oozes out from the earth and pools in a few select locations.
Obviously, Roth’s strategy doesn’t work out so well for this particular cowboy, as the no-nonsense Tom White is weakened to the point that he hardly registers in this tale if not for the understated moral fortitude that Jesse Plemons gives to the character. He’s simply a formal guy in a striped suit, not a living symbol of the waning American West.
In a twist of fate, Roth and Scorsese rewrote the script with White as the protagonist before realizing that doing so would detract from the story’s focus on the Osage and the terrible toll these events took on the entire community. The disturbing testimony that Native American performers like William Belleau and Tantoo Cardinal provide to the violence surrounding them is less immediate in the final cut than the quiet that surrounds it.
What this new version of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is able to develop into, thanks to Roth’s interpretation, is a gripping multifaceted character study of the individuals responsible for the slaughter. Most crucially, it sets up the latest of Scorsese’s late-career successes as the centerpiece of a collection of films that otherwise wouldn’t have anything in common: A tangled love tale about a young Osage lady who marries a white guy who, unknown to her, plotted and executed the murder of her whole family so that he might claim their oil riches.
The finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s whole career anchors this sepia-toned drama of slow-poisoned self-denial. The former matinee star has never shied away from portraying filth and villains, but his nuanced and uncompromising performance as the cretinous Ernest Burkhart extracts fresh marvels from the actor’s enduring lack of vanity.
Ernest returns to Fairfax, Oklahoma after World War I (where he suffers a “blown up gut” that seems to have limited his ability to do physical labor), and from the moment he arrives at the local train station, he discovers that the hierarchy of power has changed in his absence (as seen in the opening scene of “Killers of the Flower Moon”). Since the American government unintentionally put the Osage people atop a true gold mine, they have become affluent beyond their wildest dreams, and white opportunists from all over the country are trying to get their hands on some of that fortune by any means necessary.
Some of the guys in the film make a living by selling vehicles or shooting pictures on the bustling main street that Scorsese employs as the film’s most visually arresting and evocative setting, thanks in large part to the work of famed production designer Jack Fisk. For the most ruthless, this might mean marrying into the wealthy Osage tribe, which, thanks to the prejudiced “guardianship” system that deemed Native Americans “incompetent” to manage their own finances, would give these trophy men complete authority over their wives’ wealth.
The incident appears to have primarily bewildered the dimwitted Ernest. He’s a New York seven but a Fairfax twelve, and he strolls around town with the slack-jawed swagger of someone who has an endless supply of moonshine at the beginning of Prohibition, with DiCaprio delivering every one of Ernest’s twangy half-thoughts directly from the bottom of his sunken jowls; imagine an entire performance born from the Lemmons scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Although Ernest’s excellent looks, lack of intelligence, and indifference to the repercussions of his actions would appear to be working against him, his ambitious uncle, William Hale, the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills,” recognizes a useful fool when he sees one. Hale, a local businessman played by Robert De Niro, professes, with no little degree of contempt, to love the Osage like his own children. In fact, he wishes they were his own offspring so that he might siphon out their headrights like oil from the earth. When advising his nephew, Hale tells him, “If you’re gonna make trouble, make it big.”
By that time, Hale had settled on Ernest as the ideal derrick for one of the city’s largest untapped veins: an Osage lady by the name of Mollie Kyle who is still single. Mollie, soon to be renamed Mrs. Burkhart (played by “Certain Women” breakout Lily Gladstone, an undeniably major talent), may be “incompetent” in the eyes of the white man’s law, but she can’t even say that word without betraying the bitterly ferocious intellect of someone who knows the score, recognizes that she is being played, and reluctantly accepts the fact that her people have few viable options.
That much and more is conveyed by Gladstone in only a few seconds of screen time, making her performance crucial to a lengthy film that fails to give her character the attention she deserves. During Mollie and Ernest’s fling in the first act, “The Killers of the Flower Moon” is at its nimblest and most vibrant, with Scorsese operating at full throttle.
However, as Mollie’s loved ones begin to die off one by one and Mrs. Ernest Burkhart falls into a diabetic coma that will keep her in bed for the duration of an entire “Kundun,” the story around her devolves into a jumble of unrelated details that don’t add up (at least not on the first viewing of a film that’s impossible to fully digest in a single sitting). A few hours later, when Mollie re-enters the limelight as the movie’s most complicated character, it’s too late to explore the full range of her responses to the trauma, both individually and collectively.
Especially when their true fondness for one other continues to outlast many of Mollie’s other family members, this is all the more difficult since she and Ernest form such a captivating combination together.
In the end, Ernest is so used to the leash Hale keeps around his neck that he almost gives up the last of his free will. However, DiCaprio’s performance — against all odds — evokes a strange kind of sympathy from the spectacle of an oafish, vile man who no longer understands the truth of his own feelings, let alone the role he may have played in poisoning the only person who cares about him. As a woman who does comprehend the reality of her own sentiments, Gladstone matches DiCaprio beat for beat as she, too, endures the same queasiness.
No storyteller on Earth is better at blurring the narrow line between love and exploitation, whether between two people or between two nations, so the fact that this picture survives the semi-tedious courtroom drama it becomes near the end is a credit to Scorsese’s continuing gift for terrible romance.
The sorrow and bewilderment that Scorsese extracts from the connection between Ernest and Mollie is so potent that it virtually begs to be analyzed in such a vast historical framework, even if doing so may be a little reductionist. When De Niro’s puckered Hale plots the destruction of the same Osage Nation families who saw him as a benevolent intermediary to white America, you might hear echoes (or precursors) of the same disassociation that coursed through films like “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
When I heard it, I couldn’t help but think of the last thing that probably went through Ace Rothstein’s mind just before the automobile he was standing in detonated. There is really no other option. You must surrender all of your possessions to them. What good would it do otherwise? That’s the type of love I thought I had for a time.
People in this region are in desperate need of a white guy who has their best interests at heart, but Hale cannot provide that sort of love. Hale believes the Osage Nation’s time is passed, and he is only an agent of destiny helping them unload their fortune before they retire to the past. Hale slaughters the Osage with the callousness of a tiger mauling its prey with the assistance of Ernest’s brother (Scott Shepherd) and the rest of his lackeys (a deep bench of wonderful faces, including Sturgill Simpson and the morbidly funny Louis Cancelmi).
However, the film’s narrow perspective makes it difficult to see Hale as anything other than a murderous entrepreneur. That’s exactly what he was, but without more background, this smiling monster seems more like an exception than a manifestation of a larger systemic problem in the United States (Roth and Scorsese’s astute invocation of the Tulsa Race Massacre is the exception that proves the rule).
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s dry, dusty brown color palette creates a palpable sense of time and place, but his camera is rarely allowed to expand beyond Fisk’s Main Street set. The story, which opens with an eye toward the boundless potential of America’s future, gradually contracts into a series of medium shots that frame out the very people to whom that future was denied.
For a director as talented and operatic as Scorsese, whose capacity to tell any narrative bumps up against his eventual admission that this may not be his story to tell, striking the right balance between the two is a tough balancing act. Therefore, Scorsese adapts “Killers of the Flower Moon” into the kind of narrative he can still tell better than anybody else: a tale of greed, corruption, and the jaded spirit of a nation founded on the idea that its resources belong to whoever is cruel enough to steal them.