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Perhaps I’m misrepresenting Killers of the Flower Moon (now streaming on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) by calling it a Lily Gladstone movie, but hear me out. She’s the beating heart and soul of this three-and-a-half-hour period epic, which just so happens to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and co-stars two of his mainstay collaborators in Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. The vaunted director adapts David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book about the Osage Indian murders, where a conspiracy of White men in 1920s Oklahoma plotted to kill affluent Osage property owners, flush with money after the discovery of oil, in order to control their wealth. It surely goes without saying that this is an all-caps BIG movie in more ways than one – at 81 years of age, Scorsese’s ambition hasn’t waned, and he tackles a sprawling story that feels vital and relevant both within his filmography and in a modern political context.
The Gist: In a classic, iconic slo-mo Scorsese shot, Osage men whoop and holler with joy, jumping through oil spurting from the ground like kids in a sprinkler on a steamy summer day. The Osage retained mineral rights in their reservation, making the Indian residents on this chunk of Oklahoma the richest people on Earth, per capita. For men like William King Hale (De Niro), this just won’t do – but we’ll get to that in a moment, after we meet his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Dicaprio), who arrives in Fairfax by train in his Army fatigues with a flask in his pocket. He finds himself in the midst of another iconic Scorsese bit, a sequence capturing the bustle and raw humanity of the setting: White people are in the employ Indians clad in expensive hats and boots and jewelry, or try to hustle them for an exorbitantly priced photograph. Ernest is amused and swept into the hubbub, the first instance of his being a highly impressionable imbecile.
That’s not a harsh assessment of the man. He’s not very smart. This becomes increasingly obvious as he meets his uncle, who owns and runs a nearby cattle ranch and, by the looks of things, isn’t short on wealth either. Ernest sits down with his uncle, who he calls King, and gives him the lowdown on the Osage: King calls them a beautiful but “sickly” people whose time “will run out.” Ernest cooked for soldiers in World War I, and didn’t fight; his appendix burst and almost killed him, so he can’t lift anything. King gives him a book on the Osage and lays out how the headrights to the oil-rich land works – who inherits what if anyone should die, stuff like that. King says he’ll employ Ernest as a driver, telling him, “Don’t be simple,” and if he makes any trouble, “make it big, get a big payoff for that, y’hear?” King exists as an elder statesman in Osage County, he knows the indigenous language and he pretends to be a kind, generous and wise gentleman with love in his heart. But the dude’s a gangster. He feels entitled to take and take and take from a people he sees as inferior.
And now we get voiceover by Mollie Kyle (Gladstone), an Osage woman with a rich claim, narrating how various Osage landowners died under suspicious circumstances, and each instance ends with the same pithy statement: “No investigation.” You heard what King said, and you heard what Mollie said, and yes, two plus two equals four, although not everyone in this story has truly figured that out yet. We meet Mollie as she seeks to make a withdrawal at the bank, and the Caucasian set of sagging jowls who is the banker (Gene Jones) questions her reasons with disapproving condescension; see, she doesn’t have a government-mandated “guardian” – read: White person – and therefore has to declare herself “incompetent.” Consider the dynamic established. She leaves the bank and waiting outside with his cab is Ernest. He becomes her go-to driver, and before too long, he’s complimenting her and she’s buying him a fancy Stetson cowboy hat and inviting him in for dinner.
It’s no surprise that King approves of Mollie and Ernest’s marriage. Her mother and sisters suffer from either a mysterious “wasting disease” or alcoholism, and it’s really no mystery to us what’s happening to them, because it’s more basic math. Of course, if any of them should die, their wealth gets funneled to Mollie and Ernest. Ernest is mostly a ne’er-do-well but also a sincerely loving husband and father who cares for Mollie as she struggles with diabetes; he doesn’t know who he is and doesn’t seem interested in knowing who he is and seems to lack the foresight to understand the consequences of pushing a boulder down a hill, so to speak. He does whatever King asks him to do, and if he screws anything up, which of course he does, well, he faces corporal punishment at the hands of his uncle and brother Byron (Scott Shepherd). Is it the fear of being spanked with a Masonic paddle – no, really – that prompts Ernest to conspire with his uncle to kill his sisters-in-law and rake in the riches? Probably. He is a rather tragic idiot.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Scorsese’s first Western tangles the stuff of his mobster drama Goodfellas with the petroleum-based greedmongering of Paul Thomas Anderson’s all-timer There Will Be Blood. The film’s unwillingness to compromise when it comes to theme and scope (and run time!) is very much on par with Scorsese’s three previous films, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and The Irishman.
Performance Worth Watching: Playing a woman who’s quiet, assured and proud, Gladstone speaks volumes with facial expressions and the way she carries herself. As Mollie’s trust in authority – and her husband – slowly erodes, the performance gets deeper and richer. I’m calling it now: She’ll win an Oscar for this.
Memorable Dialogue: The town doctors (that Osage folk absolutely shouldn’t trust) give Mollie a newfangled insulin treatment for her diabetes:
Doctor: It’s from a cow’s pancreas.
Ernest: Wow! A cow’s pancreas!
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The final hour of Killers of the Flower Moon is as engrossing and invigorating as anything Scorsese has directed in 30 years. It isn’t unhinged like Wolf of Wall Street or stressful like The Departed, but subtly devastating, and – not to give anything away – its final scenes find the director contending with his place as a White storyteller doing his damnedest to do justice to this Osage tragedy. I can’t affirm whether he succeeds, but his film is damning and empathetic, and a crucial portrayal of the gross, systemic injustice that’s a primary artery to the ugly heart of American history.
Scorsese tells the story through Ernest, an upward-falling simpleton who never seems to take into consideration what he’s doing, and often looks like a dog who doesn’t understand why it’s being scolded. DiCaprio assures that he’s at least a complex figure – he’s King’s pawn and a petty scoundrel, but we never have reason to believe he doesn’t truly love Mollie, even as he laces her insulin with poison to, as King puts it, “slow her down.” Call it the cognitive dissonance of the human condition. The love story between Ernest and Mollie is what makes the film work as a drama rich with humanity, and more than just a historical epic about White people committing atrocities. Ernest is histrionic, emblematic of his stupidity. Mollie is simmering in her silence, a sign of intelligence. What does she see in him? We can only hazard a guess, but he’s too simple – and too unconvincing a liar – to be anything but sincere.
There’s reams of thematic fodder to unpack here, from the early days of the FBI (Jesse Plemons turns up as the lead agent investigating the murders) to a corrupt justice system (John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser have brief roles as lawyers) and the age-old disease that is entitlement and its primary symptom, unquenchable greed. The late Robbie Robertson composed a persistent score that amplifies the slow-build tension that Scorsese nurtures so effectively, and the performances from a wide-ranging cast are uniformly strong. Killers of the Flower Moon is the work of a wily old veteran who’s still restlessly searching for new ways to tell stories within his distinctive and lively filmmaking methodology, and the result is devastating, provocative and profoundly sad, one part emotional gut-punch and one part intellectual argument. There’s a point where King asserts that he “brought (the Osage) into the great 20th century.” In reply, I’ll quote Werner Herzog from his memoir: “As far as I’m concerned, the 20th century, in its entirety, was a mistake.”
Our Call: Another indispensable work from one of the modern masters. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.