KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON (2023)
Release Date: 10/27/23 [Cinemas / Apple TV+]
Genre: Crime. Drama. History.
Studio: Paramount Pictures. Apple TV+.
"When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, the Osage people are murdered one by one - until the FBI steps in to unravel the mystery."
OUR MOVIE REVIEW:
It’s extremely hard to reckon with a violent past that’s near a century behind you. One we had no hand in perpetuating; though, it still happened. Not only that, it was allowed to happen. Early 1900’s Oklahoma was a prosperous era for many folks, but it was also extremely violent. Violence perpetrated by white supremacy. One notable instance is the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in the Greenwood District which was notably titled “Black Wall Street”. We also have the subject of this film the Osage murders, detailed in superb research from author David Grann in his 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon; which details the insidious conspiracy to murder Osage native Americans after they’ve struck oil, becoming some of the wealthiest people in the world.
With the novel catching the attention of director Martin Scorsese, the prestigious filmmaker set his eyes to make an ambitious, but damning American epic. At first, with a script penned by Eric Roth, the film was to center around Tom White (who actor Leonardo DiCaprio was to portray in the initial draft) as he’s going through the investigation of the murders which is also one of the first cases of the FBI. Though, DiCaprio and Scorsese saw that this was not the direction they wanted to take with this story. Grann’s book had only accounted for two perspectives: Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who had brought the conspiracy to the attention of the FBI, and Tom White who had been assigned the case by J. Edgar Hoover. One perspective that Scorsese clearly saw himself as not the right person to tell that specific story, and another perspective he became more disinterested with. As a result, Scorsese brings up an adaptation that proves to be one of the most ingenious changes of perspectives that could have been made in this story: he tells this through the perpetrators.
We follow Ernest Burkhart played here by DiCaprio, a man who comes to work for his uncle, William “King” Hale, Robert De Niro, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Where the Osage native American tribe is experiencing a boom in their wealth after striking oil on their land. As Hale takes his nephew under his wing, he convinces him to swoon on one of the native women in Fairfax in order to get a part of whatever headrights the Osage get from their oil. As he charms Mollie, Lily Gladstone, Ernest gets deeper and deeper into the conspiracy, and we see his soul decay more and more.
Hale and Burkhart are such enigmatic characters. DiCaprio brings a new evolution to his acting method. I’m not sure if it’s his best, but with a figure Grann’s book only details so much about, DiCaprio and Scorsese dive deep into concepts of whiteness, privilege, ignorance and complicity with this character. He’s a walking contradiction of a man who claims to have love in his heart, but it’s just dark, naive and violent. It’s a stunning performance paired up with De Niro who’s “King” Hale is as charismatic as he is evil. However, De Niro manages to make Hale an even more frightening historical figure, as you really have no idea what’s going on in his head. You’re never sure if it’s altruistic or for the most putrid intentions, and towards the end, it’s scary to think that’s how vile a mind can get.
However, the heart and soul of this movie is Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart. Though her perspective isn’t the forefront like in Grann’s novel, she’s still a prominent character in the vast conspiracy against her people. It’s a quiet and contemplative performance, but so much of the film's power is in her stare. From expressing love and happiness to deep contempt and anger, Gladstone elevates the film with her perseverance in the face of violence. As the woman who managed to bring this case to get actual attention, Gladstone’s quiet and contemplative nature only shows Mollie Burkhart’s power and place in history. A performance so powerful that one hopes that this performance, story and Grann’s own book, cement Mollie’s name in history. It’s by far the performance of the year.
We can’t talk about another Scorsese movie without talking about his directing. A career over fifty years, and he expresses no intention of slowing down (with plans to adapt another David Grann novel, The Wager). Looking at his body of work, you can tell his language in the medium is ever so evolving - adding to many ideas represented in his films. His more violent imagery may stick to some more than others, but to me it’s his more confrontational images, and his images that mix the spiritual and surreal. Many of Scorsese’s images harken back even further than his own body of work; some of the most vital images of early film history - perhaps even interrogating cinema’s own complacency in white supremacy.
Marty once again teams up with his seasoned editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, to edit this colossal epic. Though, perhaps the film’s gargantuan runtime may intimidate some, Schoonmaker's structure of editing allows the film to move with propulsive pace, and allows the viewer to truly get lost in the rolling hills of Osage County. Don’t try to just think of the plot; think of the images Schoonmaker and Scorsese cut between. Length becomes irrelevant once you engage in the deep conversation they want you to have with these images, and however that conversation goes, you’ll leave cinematically enriched. And last, this is sadly the last collaboration between Scorsese and musician Robbie Robertson, who unfortunately passed away in August earlier this year. It’s a bittersweet departure. Robertson’s score to Killers of the Flower Moon is an understated element to the film’s rhythm.
This is, by all means, a monumental film. As Scorsese brings a most damning American epic, he also brings one of his grandest achievements of his career. It’s an ugly dark heart of a film in a wolf's den, but one that excellently contemplates and reckons with a violent American past that should never be forgotten. DiCaprio and De Niro turn in obviously exceptional performances, but hopefully this will be a film to shoot Lily Gladstone into the stratosphere as one of this generation's most fearless performers. Though he’s not done just yet, we shouldn’t take Marty’s films for granted - sooner or later, we’re going to stop getting them.