‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ review: Martin Scorsese’s true American crime story of greed, murder and love may be his most empathetic | Cannes
The biggest event of Cannes this year is the return of Martin Scorsese, 38 years after After Hours. The expectations for Killers of the Flower Moon starring the director’s multi-generational muses Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, have been building up since the first announcement back in 2017. For this venture, the legendary filmmaker also reunited a team of loyal collaborators; editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, and music composer Robbie Robertson. Unsurprisingly, all of these team players bring their A-game along with production designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood), working with the Oscar-winning director for the first time.
Killers of Flower Moon starts with a black and white montage that is skillfully cut by Schoonmaker to introduce the population of the Osage County and their ascension to great wealth: the footage that feels like an old commercial of a series of vignettes put together to highlight the people of the Osage at the peak of prosperity.
Adapted from David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” the critically acclaimed book that revisits the atrocious crimes made against the wealthy Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s, the adaptation shifts the focus from the investigation into the members of the family, the antagonists and the people of Osage County.
By raising cattle, Wiliam Hale (Robert De Niro) made a fortune and a respectable position within the community. In the 1920s, he committs an act of horrific genocide against a group of Indigenous people who happened to be the world’s richest people per capita at the time. His plot is gruesome; to murder the Osage’s wealthiest one by one whichever way it takes. And in order to tame the suspicions, he pushes his nephew Ernest Burkhart to marry Mollie Kyle Cobb, a young inheritor to facilitate the access to her family members.
Ernest Burkhart played by Leonardo DiCaprio in an instant classic introduction. “Don’t call me Sir. Call me uncle or king.” With these words, William Hale invites his nephew to a psychological dance. The humorous conversation between the two iconic actors sets the mood for what is to come; Ernest following in the shadow of his powerful uncle and the latter being a tranquil and terrifying force. From that very first scene, we are almost certain where we will be heading. Even without prior knowledge of the story, Hale makes sure you know that he has a plan for Ernest to marry Mollie for her money.
Indeed, Ernest offers to drive Mollie (Lily Gladstone) to her different destinations, charms her, and then marries her. As Mollie, Lily Gladstone gets her golden ticket with this role, playing her with a tough internal force to go with an evident physical control; and in turn, Scorsese gets one of the best female performances in his own career. Gladstone has always been formidable with quiet roles, mainly in Certain Women where her naked honesty takes the whole film to a higher level. With Mollie, she is given a larger canvas to make an even bigger impression which she achieves seamlessly. As usual, Gladstone is an actress who isn’t in need of dialogue to register a good performance and Scorsese places a good bet on her skills. The three leads aside, the film is stuffed with supporting players who add to the final equation. Tantoo Cardinal is effective as the wounded matriarch as is Jesse Plemons, playing FBI agent Tom White, who shows up in the film’s last act.
As the film unfolds, audiences will have every right to believe the romance seeing that the couple infuse their shared scenes with a high-spirited dynamic. DiCaprio is fascinating and always different with Scorsese, with Ernest he registers his best work since The Wolf of Wall Street. Whereas both parts couldn’t be any different, they serve as a reminder of his wide range that a few may overlook as a consequence of his imposing star power. His own inner clash between his greed, his allegiance to his uncle and his guilt in relation to his wife and kids create a formidable acting showcase that will be singled out for years to come.
The film, as long as it is, never feels as much with Schoonmaker in command who mounted the fastest 206 minutes of the festival so far. The pace is a triumph in itself when the story tracks to be a succession of variant orchestrations of the killings; these sequences reminiscent of the early gangster works of the filmmaker were a nice touch to the proceedings.
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is the uncle/nephew liaison and its incredible development from the caring and familiar bond all the way up to the aggressive and manipulative authority. One scene in particular sets the tone straight on the complexity of their link when Hale punishes Ernest for not playing by his predetermined rules – the punishment consists in a spanking session that Ernest deftly agrees to making for one of the key scenes of the film that speak to Leonardo Di Caprio’s unwavering performance. Robert De Niro gives a masterclass in this role with shades of his past memorable works with an additional psychopathic touch by which he imbues each facet of his dense character. De Niro didn’t develop new tools the audience wasn’t already aware of and yet, his villainous character comes as a revelation to become a prime example of a perfect actor/director pairing.
With Killers of the Flower Moon, audiences are in for surprising narrative and stylistic choices; starting with the shift of the center interest of the book up till the ending which is a wonderfully surprising masterstroke that will surely please all the true crime podcast fans around the world. As surprising as that sounds, Scorsese delivers with it one of the best film endings of all-time. Exquisite, special and personal.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, playing out of competition. Apple Original Films and Paramount Pictures will release Killers of the Flower Moon in select theaters on October 6 and wide on October 20.