Killers of the Flower Moon is a flawlessly executed history lesson

Killers of the Flower Moon is a flawlessly executed history lesson

Back in 2007, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed won Best Picture. The master filmmaker was 65 at the time, and the conventional wisdom in film circles was that the award was presented less as a means of honoring the film itself — largely considered to be great, but far from his best — and more as a way of ensuring that the Academy’s reputation wouldn’t be marred by the absence of a Best Picture win across the career of one of the best filmmakers to ever do it. Personally, I find The Departed to be a top-tier film, well deserving of its accolades, but the ostensible panic to award Scorsese with the Academy’s top prize is understandable. In the world of normies, 65 is damn close to retirement age. It was very possible that Scorsese would retire, pass on, or lose his ability to make a film with the level of craft and care for which he and his team had become known (see: Clint Eastwood).

Alas, this concern was purely in vain. Since then Marty has given us Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, Silence, Hugo — all incredible films. Not only hasn’t he lost his luster, he’s continued to develop his craft, embracing new technologies, courting new performers, and reaching far beyond any limits in terms of which stories he’s interested in telling. I think it’s safe to say that throwing the man an award just in case turned out to be a needless precaution (although, again, The Departed absolutely deserved to win Best Picture).

This notion is further hammered home by his latest, Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on the excellent non-fiction novel by David Grann (The Lost City of Z), it tells the historically unsurprising story of a series of murders enacted upon the Osage tribe in the early 1920s which occurred just after a wellspring of oil was discovered on their land, making them the richest Americans per capita at the time. I say “historically unsurprising” because theirs is a story as old as time and as tenacious as tar: fortune strikes for a people of color, and this triggers an act of entitled theft by the white man in which nothing is sacred except the green goddess of cold, hard cash.

Grann’s novel gives a deeply textured history of the Osage people, their land, and the many characters, both good and evil, who moved in and out of their story, ultimately leading to the formation of the FBI. It’s incredibly engaging, but it’s a historical text. Meaning that even if it focuses on a few key players, the history is the story. The adaptation by Scorsese and Eric Roth is tasked with finding something a touch more cinematic in terms of story. The focal point of their narrative is the relationship between Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), her husband Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). After returning from war with a stomach injury and a devil may care attitude, Ernest takes up a job driving for his Hale, one of the richest and most powerful white men in the area. This job puts him in the path of Mollie, and soon enough the two are married. Ernest and Mollie are in love, but Ernest has ulterior motives, and is encouraged to pursue them by Hale.

Basically, since Mollie and her family have loads of oil money, it’s the goal of Ernest and Hale to make sure the former secures the “head rights” to her fortune in the case of her death. And since Mollie is suffering from diabetes, a chronic illness with very little by way of treatment at the time, it’s a race against the clock. Furthermore, Mollie has a large family, all of whom stand in the way of Ernest being the sole inheritor of her wealth. Given the history of the white man’s mistreatment of indigenous people, you can see exactly where this is going.

Grann’s novel, being a scholarly text, preserves the mystery of who is behind the violence enacted upon the Osages, but the film, in catering to a more classical story narrative, opts to let us in on the secret right away (and really, it’s no secret if you have even the slightest understanding of history or of how movies work). This allows for an exploration of the relationship shared by Mollie and Ernest as well as by Ernest and Hale — at what point does greed supersede love? At what point does familial duty take precedent over emotional responsibility?

DiCaprio and De Niro are fantastic together, as is to be expected, but it’s Gladstone who steals the film. Early on, her guarded stoicism is as charming as it is enchanting, and she’s able to quietly embody the tightrope walk of being a very rich Osage woman in a world that is, by its very nature, waiting for her to expire. Even as she maintains a stiff upper lip, it’s easy to see why Ernest, despite his greedy core, falls in love with her. As the film progresses and Mollie takes on a more familial role, while also juggling a chronic illness, we get to see Gladstone stretch her wings in a showier sense, exhibiting an incredible range and a humanity that makes what transpires that much more heartbreaking. Mollie is the heart and soul of the film, and Gladstone brings her to life to an astonishing degree. 

Being a Scorsese picture, the considerable runtime is earned through impeccable craft and a masterful balancing of tones. It’s equal parts thrilling, educational, and dramatic, and there’s always room for bits of comedy to shine through. Scorsese/Roth understand that life is inherently funny, and humor can arise from even the most harrowing situations. They haven’t written bits, per se, but they’ve captured reality. This allows the story to remain real and un-heightened, which in turn allows for the drama to hit exactly as hard as it should. The balancing of tones also allows for smooth transitions between genre. Killers of the Flower Moon is equal parts family drama, organized crime movie, police procedural, courtroom drama, and historical epic. One could take the somewhat defensible position that this is Scorsese playing the hits, but it would be an unfair and reductive angle that dismisses how well all of it is synthesized.

On a craft level it has one of the cleanest edits across all of Scorsese’s filmography (Schoonmaker 4eva!), and some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve ever seen — credit to Rodrigo Prieto. One image lingers in my mind: silhouettes of farm workers distorted by flame as they work a controlled burn. It’s a chilling image that says so much — burning what you have in order to facilitate a higher yield.

Also bringing the picture to life is the late, great Robbie Robertson’s excellent score, which is itself enhanced by a handful of period appropriate needle drops. There’s no Gimme Shelter, but the percussive drums of the score certainly evoke a similar energy while also playing upon what audiences stereotypically associate with Native American music, somehow subverting our expectations with a dose of realism. This is furthered by a final flourish that upends your typical postscript in a way that I refuse to spoil, but which respectfully and effectively enters the film into the the conversation about the ownership of story and the commodification of tragedy into entertainment, specifically by a long line of white Americans. It’s fascinating, surprising, and it edges an already astonishing picture into an essential historical document.

Also, it puts the cherry on top of a film that, much like Oppenheimer earlier this year, is a parade of appearances from “hey, it’s that guy” actors — a game that will never ever grow old.

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese, David Grann

Starring Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, Cara Jade Myers

Rated R, 206 minutes

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