After witnessing the magnificence of The Irishman, one of Martin Scorsese’s late-career masterpieces, I told myself that I would have been satisfied if I had just seen the final film from one of my favorite directors. After nearly fifty years behind the camera, the mature and devastating gangster tale felt like a worthy coda to a career too influential to attempt to describe here. Now, after experiencing Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s difficult to even try to envision the end of that career. His latest film is brimming with an energetic spirit and a significant purpose that cannot be contained in its 206-minute runtime. It’s as beautiful as The Age of Innocence, as reverent as Silence, and as violent as Raging Bull, yet somehow, it’s something entirely new. Set in the 1920s when a painful and methodical series of murders ran through the Osage territory like a biblical plague, Killers of the Flower Moon is the essential American epic of our time–a picaresque true-crime tale, a romance filled with betrayal, a western without a hero riding off into the sunset, and a thoughtful, careful recounting of a story that has never been told at this scale until now.
The film opens with children peeking through the tall grass to observe a pipe burial and adult members of the Osage mourning the loss of their ways as white men have diluted their cultural practices with their own. By marrying Osage women and forcing their children to speak English, these men have slowly stripped away their identity. It’s an indirect expression of violence and an insidious prelude to the more aggressive means of theft and erasure that follow. Scorsese then shows crude oil bubbling and bursting through the earth, like the story of Creation. As the Osage dance through the oil rainstorm to Robbie Robertson’s gorgeous final score, it feels like a celebration and a baptism, forever connecting them to their land. This sequence works in concert with a later shot in the film when we see a man murdered at an oil rig at nighttime, his body left in a puddle of oil covered from head to toe. It’s a devastating reminder that oil is no longer a celebratory discovery but the impetus for greed and murder. One of the cruelest aspects of the story of the Osage (and there are many) is that the U.S. government forced them to relocate repeatedly, only to end up on the worst possible land for farming. That land was rich in oil, though, so they grew wealthy and were punished for it.
Based on David Grann’s brilliant bestselling book of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon is rich in detail and deliberate in its depiction of the tangled web of corruption. Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker incorporate a montage of daguerreotype images of the film’s characters in a black-and-white silent film reel to establish exposition and provide background information about the unique social and political norms of the time. While the Osage were “the richest people per capita on Earth” and technically owned the headrights to the land’s oil and resources, opportunistic white men came to town and began to find ways to control their assets. The Osage had jewels, furs, and luxury cars, but they were unable to access their money unless a white guardian was present, making marriages between white men and Osage women appear advantageous to both parties. It didn’t matter that these guardians were often ne’er-do-wells who spent their days drinking and gambling; they had control over their allotments and were left to ensure that the Osage managed their money responsibly. Grann’s riveting book unfolds like a thriller, but Scorsese seems more interested in removing that sense of mystery. Immediately knowing the perpetrators enforces the idea that this isn’t a story about discovery, but about what it means to already know the source of the evil and contemplate your complicity in it. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth reveal the interconnected network of evil like a slow IV drip, never emphasizing it as dramatic but as ordinary. We observe corrupt insurance agents who make it easy for white men to collect money belonging to the Osage, two undertakers who conduct autopsies with the finesse of Bill the Butcher, and aloof government officials who can’t be bothered to listen, but they work in the background of the central story, creating the feeling that something sinister is always happening on the periphery.
Scorsese creates a visual and sonic juxtaposition between the ways of the Osage and the money-hungry white men. When depicting the spiritual practices of the Osage, there is a stillness in every frame, captured beautifully by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence). Little to no score is used, the landscapes are vast and sparsely populated, and the sound design makes space for the quiet noises of nature and the power of the Osage language. There is an abrupt shift when Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the frontier settlement of Fairfax by train. Suddenly, we’re in a lawless land where everything is loud and lively, as chaotic as a film set at the dawn of CinemaScope, with dozens of extras overflowing from the frame. Ernest is a soft and impressionable WWI veteran who returns home to a different world where he’s immediately taken to his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy man with a large estate on a cattle ranch outside of town. “Call me, King,” Hale suggests to Ernest as he wastes no time telling him about the Osages’ beauty (and wealth) and quizzing him on his taste for women. De Niro is flawless as Hale, turning in one of the best performances of his career. He holds court like John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown, always dressed in white or cream, typically captured in the light, with an odd sense of humor to mask his true evil within. Hale’s charisma and ability to speak their language mean he is considered a friend to the Osage, further masking his greedy motivations. Hale never hides his sinister machinations from Ernest or the audience; he only grows bolder as he realizes that Ernest just “loves that money” and lacks any type of backbone to challenge him. He’s the perfect foolish puppet for a King.
Hale gives Ernest a job as a driver and hopes that he has met Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and will consider trying to woo her. The idea of Ernest marrying Mollie isn’t about love for Hale, of course. Marriage is an economic proposal, and Mollie has “full blood” rights, making her a smart investment. When Ernest and Mollie meet, there is a comedic aspect of their flirtation because they couldn’t be more different. She has a quiet intelligence to her while he rambles on to fill the silence, yet they fall in love. It’s easy to wonder why someone with as much wisdom and magisterial beauty as Mollie would fall for Ernest, especially as they both acknowledge the economic aspects of their union. The ways in which she can’t act on her discernment, though, make for a much richer, more realistic character. Lily Gladstone’s transcendent portrayal of Mollie is the beating heart of the film. She has an elegant stillness that she wears proudly throughout the film, while letting glimmers of interest and traces of her inner conflict around Ernest and the other white men to break through. When she loses her family members, your heart breaks for her unbelievable loss, as Gladstone allows Mollie’s seriousness and stoicism to fall when she grieves.
Scorsese and Roth rewrote the script and moved the story’s central focus away from the creation of the FBI and onto the relationship between Mollie and Ernest. The earlier draft of the script that spent more time with Texas ranger turned federal investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) would’ve been compelling, no doubt, but that’s a story that has threads throughout Scorsese’s filmography and has already been given its due. Focusing the film’s sprawling narrative on a marriage plot is a feature of the film, not a bug, as it makes the violence more tangible and visceral in its everyday horror. Instead of attempting to capture a broad genocide from an outside perspective, Scorsese and Roth make the violence closer to home, adding weight and gravity to a story that could have appeared cold and simplistic with a different approach. We get to know Mollie and her sisters as they raise their children and laugh about the men in their town, comparing them to animals. Mollie’s younger sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) is a vivacious spitfire in Fairfax, dressing in modern clothing and carrying a small pistol in her purse. After Anna’s body is found, the violence against her family escalates as Hale becomes more determined to ensure that the headrights lie with Mollie and, later, Ernest. Getting to know Mollie and her sisters makes the murders even more crushing, especially as she remains unaware that Ernest is responsible. As Ernest, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers his best performance in his decades-long collaboration with Scorsese, oscillating between boyish “who me?” cowardice and a man filled with a dozen contradictions. When Mollie gets sick with diabetes and the narrative begins to evoke Rosemary’s Baby and Gaslight, Ernest is no longer just doing his uncle’s bidding and DiCaprio brilliantly shows the character’s evolution from bystander to perpetrator.
Early in the film, Mollie delivers a signature Scorsese voiceover, reading the names and ages of the recently murdered Osage. “John Whitehair, 23, no investigation,” she shares somberly. It’s imperative that Mollie be the one to introduce the Osage murders, as this story has never been given the proper space and weight on film before. It’s as if she’s personally entering it in the historical record. As Mollie reads each name, the victims are shown either in a traditional funeral pose or at the location of their untimely death. When a character is killed or their body is found, Scorsese holds the shot, often for an uncomfortably long time, ensuring that these atrocities are witnessed and incapable of being forgotten. He has never been one to shy away from violence in his films, but the banal evil present here is unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. Gone is the highly stylized glamorous violence of his earlier films to make way for brutal, unflinching horror. The tone of the film is spectacular, as Scorsese and his team of collaborators capture the feeling of dread drenched in daylight.
That team of veteran collaborators creates a wide-ranging yet stunningly intimate epic that’s sure to be one of the most unforgettable cinematic experiences of the year. Legendary production designer Jack Fisk (Days of Heaven, There Will Be Blood) opens up the world of the film by crafting stunning outdoor structures and intricate interiors that illuminate the lives of the film’s characters. Jacqueline West’s (Dune, The Revenant) plethora of costumes display the range of Osage attire from traditional to modern. Schoonmaker’s editing magic is present in spades as the lengthy film moves at an often thrilling pace, creating a work of art that feels entertaining without taking away the pain.
In crafting Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese ensures that the pain and grief experienced by the Osage during the “Reign of Terror” will never be forgotten. The ending of the film presents too beautiful of a surprise to spoil here, but just know that it shows the 80-year-old master at his most thoughtful and adventurous. As the final minutes of the film unfold, it’s suddenly evident why it was so necessary for Mollie to read the names of the murdered Osage at the beginning of the film. The person who tells the story matters just as much, if not more, than the story that is told. History must be preserved by sharing these stories and memories, and Scorsese understands the beauty and the contradiction of his place in that.
Apple Original Films and Paramount Pictures will release Killers of the Flower Moon only in theaters on October 20.