Vague Visages’ Killers of the Flower Moon review contains minor spoilers. Martin Scorsese’s 2023 Apple TV+ movie features Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Martin Scorsese’s recent interviews have largely become discussions about mortality; a filmmaker of advancing age fully aware that any statement he makes could be his last. What has made the American director’s more recent work so fascinating in that regard is that it often feels like he’s making a conscious return to familiar themes with the intent of offering a definitive statement on each. Take The Irishman (2019), a violent mob movie in the same vein as many of Scorsese’s prior masterpieces, but with a more analytical eye on the bloodshed, exploring what it’s like to grow old in a profession where others drop like flies. Killers of the Flower Moon announces itself as a return to another of the filmmaker’s narrative preoccupations — that of the corrupting, all-consuming nature of capitalism, where every cent made is in direct response to another life lost.
Through Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing in Killers of the Flower Moon, the weight of the 1920s Osage murders — in which a wealthy Native American tribe was slowly killed off by white Americans desperate for their spoils — can be felt within the opening 10 minutes. an introductory newsreel announcing the tribe’s wealth is followed by a montage of bodies piling up, all of which are bluntly introduced, possessing none of the same style as the similar “Layla” montage in Goodfellas (1990). It’s a bold moment of self-awareness from a filmmaker who has previously found cinematic glamour within true crime stories, but in Killers of the Flower Moon, as with The Irishman, Scorsese can no longer think about death flippantly.
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Scorsese frames the still under-reported genocide as the horror it was, inviting audiences to juxtapose how he shoots these sequences with similar set pieces in prior films that are also based on macabre real events. The story is so masterfully told, however, that it isn’t until the penultimate scene that it becomes apparent that Scorsese was aiming to reflect upon the ethics of true crime storytelling all along, and whether real-life tragedies are safe to be mined for entertainment generations after the atrocities, or if it would just simplify the richer lives of those who have passed.
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First, however, Scorsese introduces two of the more odious characters in his oeuvre. Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a cook shipped to the WWI frontlines, arriving back in Oklahoma under the wing of his manipulative uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro). Even in an extensive epic, the screenplay — co-written by Scorsese and Eric Roth — wastes no time in setting up their dynamic. When quizzed about his type of women, William unveils his murderous plot to inherit the Osage’s wealth by marrying into their families, killing them off one-by-one. William is, in a field with serious competition, the most unnerving character De Niro has played for his regular directorial collaborator, an evil lurking in plain sight who has assimilated himself into a community he’s eating away at from the inside. There’s a lot less black comedy than in the Scorsese’s prior crime epics for a reason; it’s hard not be horrified by the architect of a genocide being invited to a meeting of the Osage community and boldly offering a reward for whoever finds the killer, knowing there’s no chance he’ll get caught.
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Ernest, in comparison, is a far less complicated evil. Much like Jordan Belfort — the businessman devoid of morality at the center of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) — money is his only motivation. I suspect that I won’t be the only viewer who draws a mental comparison to the Austin Powers villain Goldmember in his repeated screams of “I love money!” But Ernest is also a far more complicated figure than this initial outline lays bare, as the Osage community to this day still debates the extent of his true feelings for wife Mollie (a tremendous Lily Gladstone), something which Roth and Scorsese’s screenplay aims to reflect. The characters’ initial courtship seems deliberately rushed to keep the audience from determining how emotionally invested Ernest is during this stage. In fact, they’re married very soon after a cringe-inducing meet-cute, likely to make audiences crawl out of their skin as DiCaprio delivers various social faux pas that no person of color could possibly find charming when coming from a white man.
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As a viewer, I much prefer DiCaprio’s more comedic performances to his dramatic ones, but Killers of the Flower Moon feels like career-best dramatic work from the actor as the story progresses. The film’s defining image is scrawled on DiCaprio’s face; a permanent scowl drooping down past his chin, a continued suggestion that, unconsciously, he’s beginning to feel remorse for this most deadly of get-rich-quick schemes. Scorsese and Roth’s screenplay is far too intelligently conceived to ever spell this out definitively, however, and the extent of how much guilt Ernest feels remains open for debate, even as he agrees to initiate a scheme that would slowly murder his wife. As Scorsese has said in interviews, many in the Osage tribe believe the couple felt genuine love for each other — but if that’s true, is that the reason Ernest aims to keep Mollie in the dark about his true intentions? There are no answers that can satisfy easily.
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During development, the Killers of the Flower Moon screenwriters strayed away from the structure of David Grann’s non-fiction tome — which focuses on the investigation itself — to explore the complicity of those directly responsible for the genocide. When Jesse Plemons does show up as investigator Tom White more than two hours into proceedings, it signals a shift into more conventional (but no less well-realized) character drama territory. I can’t imagine the originally planned iteration of Killers of the Flower Moon would have been anywhere near as rewarding, nor would the film’s final moment — a masterstroke best left unexplained — be as powerful in its reframing of how atrocities are retold for generations, getting further away from the emotional truth in the process. Scorsese knows he has introduced characters that are pure evil, but they’re horrifying because one can never quite grapple with their moral compasses. Killers of the Flower Moon is, in other words, another high point in the director’s career: I hope Scorsese has years of fine work still left in him, but if this is the film he chooses to go out with, then it’s a haunting final note on several of his recurring narrative obsessions.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.
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