At 80, Martin Scorsese has finally made a Western, and it packs a wallop. The much anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon had its world premiere on Saturday night at the Cannes Film Festival, an epic set in the Osage Nation of Oklahoma largely in the early 1920s and telling a harrowing and highly complex tale that still resonates today, but seems incredible that it ever could have happened.
Scorsese and his Oscar winning co-writer of the screenplay Eric Roth have adapted David Grann’s 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, but though meticulously researched and told by Grann, their take on the book veers strongly from the FBI part and instead smartly goes for the jugular and soul of a moment in time where greed and money drove white men to unspeakable acts. With a complicated love story at its center, Scorsese and his collaborators have made something that stands firmly on its own.
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Grann is a journalist-turned-bestselling author whose works seem tailor-made for the movies. His The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon gave director James Gray the rip-roaring material to make what I think is still his finest film — also not one attempting to shoot the book as it were, but to get to the heart of it. That is what Scorsese has done in spades with Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann’s best-known work to date, centering it not on the Texas Ranger-turned-FBI agent Tom White who became the “white savior” for the Osage community when he cracked the case in 1923, but rather on the suspects involved in a scheme to take back what the white man believed was naturally theirs. It was diabolical, no less so because its architect convinced those involved that it was entirely legal.
Storywise, Scorsese uses silent movie-style footage to establish how the Osage Indian Nation, pushed out of other lands and forced to settle in a less desirable part of Oklahoma, became the wealthiest per-capita people in the country when they struck oil on the land they owned, much like James Dean in Giant. In other words they became filthy rich, living in high society, until the Reign of Terror by some very bad white men in the early ’20s attempted to take it all away via a scheme to marry into Osage families and do away with them one by one until they are the only one left to inherit the headrights to their land and all that money.
The movie really is about greed in that way, the lengths we may go to get rich. It is also about the conundrum of Native Americans’ treatment by the white man — something Hollywood has drilled into our subconscious since movies began. Scorsese, with an authentic cast in which Native Americans have more than 40 speaking parts (not to mention countless extras), changes things up on an epic scale — everything about this movie is big — and attempts to bury the transgressions of Hollywood’s shaky past in telling these kinds of stories. Killers of the Flower Moon is a landmark motion picture achievement, if only for the care and handling of how it tells the story of the Osage Nation.
At its heart though is a love story, or so we are meant to believe, that starts with the arrival of a wounded World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who comes back to this Oklahoma town to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a kind of titular civic-minded figure well-liked by the Osage he has convinced are his good friends, people whose best interests he is looking out for. Burkhart really is a kind of aimless and happy-go-lucky guy, certainly impressionable enough to be roped into Hale’s ultimately evil scheme of getting a rich Osage woman to marry him, then kill off her family and finally her — slow poison is a good method — to inherit her money and land. If this can happen enough, Hale believes, the Osage people will be pushed out and/or killed off. Enter Mollie Kyke (Lily Gladstone), an attractive and smart Osage woman who does seem smitten by Ernest’s natural charm even though she points out he probably “likes money,” but he genuinely seems to grow to love her, and she him. They get married, have kids, but a mysterious series of deaths are occurring in the community and soon in Mollie’s own family as well, including her sisters and mother. Getting wind of this, FBI agent White (Jesse Plemons) turns up to investigate. Things heat up as Mollie herself becomes sick.
What Scorsese does not seem interested in doing is refocusing the story on this particular investigation which in real-life led to a trial (John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser turn up as opposing lawyers), or in shaping this into any kind of murder mystery. Early on we know damn well who is responsible and why it is happening. Scorsese even incorporates a killing montage just to drive the point home. In other words, this is not a procedural or about “the birth of the FBI” as Grann’s own title insinuates (James Stewart already made that movie — it is called The FBI Story). Scorsese is interested more in what is between the lines, the questions that remain unanswered, how they can possibly get away with this, and how far they might go, and perhaps how far we as a nation have not come.
There are many ways to spoil the sheer pleasure of watching a master filmmaker handle a vast tale like this, working at the top of a very impressive game at a time when many have retired. I won’t do that except to say with a length of 3 1/2 hours the filmmaker and his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, don’t seem to be wasting any time. Yes, it feels truly epic in many ways, but all in service to the story. I never looked at my watch.
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DiCaprio is superb here, and it is a tricky role because he is doing something very bad, getting himself in deeper but also must convince us there is more there than meets the eye. De Niro is deliciously slippery here, kind of a Donald Trump-like figure who believes he is helping the people who seem to revere him, but of course is really just exploiting them while keeping a smile on his face. Gladstone is just terrific, playing Mollie on several levels and making us believe every beat of this performance. Her casting here is perfect. Although his role is truncated from what it is in the book, Plemons is right on the money, almost an amusing, shrewd, Colombo-like figure who is trying to get the answers. The picture was already alive before he shows up, but it gets even more so when he does. A large group of Native American actors make up so much of the outstanding supporting cast including veteran Tantoo Cardinal as Lizzie Q, Mollie’s mother; as well as the trio of Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, and Jillian Dion (especially good) as her sisters.
Production-wise the film looks great with sharp contributions from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capturing that vast landscape of Oklahoma with awe-inspiring camera work; the production design of Jack Fisk; costumes of Jacqueline West; and a Scorsese favorite Robbie Robertson with the score. Bradley Thomas, Daniel Lupi, Dan Friedkin and Scorsese produced. Whatever the reported $200 million budget, it is all on the screen in the kind of big-screen epic tale Hollywood has been shying away from. Apple stepped up to ensure Scorsese’s vision and this could be a game-changer in terms of theatrical distribution and streaming coming together.
Killers of the Flower Moon takes us through a very dark part of our history (and incredibly at the same time of the horrendous Tulsa massacre of 1921 just 30 minutes down the road) and if it does nothing else, reminds of just how horrible we can be to each other, a reminder needed now more than ever. That alone makes it a movie that could not come at a better time.
Parmount Pictures will open Killers of the Flower Moon in theaters limited on October 6 and wide on October 20. It will stream on a later unspecified date on Apple TV+.
Title: Killers of the Flower Moon
Festival: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Distributor: Apple Original Films/Paramount Pictures
U.S. release date: October 6, 2023
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Martin Scorsese, Eric Roth
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Tatanka Means, Michael Abbott Jr.,Pat Healy, Scott Shepherd, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson
Running time: 3 hr 26 min
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