- Killers of the Flower Moon
- Directed by: Martin Scorsese
- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone
- Crime/Drama| R | 3 hr 26 min
By Reed Ripley
Stop me if you’ve heard this before⎯Martin Scorsese just released an American crime epic, and it’s a masterpiece. As many times as it’s happened, it never gets old, and Killers of the Flower Moon reminds us how Scorsese can drill right to the heart of a crime story and reveal just how telling history can be.
Killers of the Flower Moon is adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, with a key distinction⎯the book has a subtitle, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. They both follow the true story of a series of murders of the Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 1920s after massive oil reserves were discovered beneath the reservation and the FBI’s subsequent investigation. The Osage won their rights to the profits, but soon after, Osage began dropping dead in droves, murdered for their “headrights,” property rights that entitled the inheritor to a share of the Osage Mineral Estate.
However, unlike the book that essentially tells the story from the FBI’s perspective, the film flips the narrative and focuses on the criminal ring of white perpetrators that intermarried with the Osage and plotted their demise, headed up by cattleman William “King” Hale (De Niro) and his cronies, including his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio). In retrospect, it’s the perfect decision⎯Scorsese is the directorial authority on American crime through the past 150 years, and telling the story from Hale and crew’s perspective gives Scorsese a representative canvas to again comment on a specific vein of evil that permeates throughout U.S. history.
In the film, it’s striking how unorganized Hale and his cronies, including his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), are. They haphazardly commit various crimes ranging from fraud to murder and never seem too worried about the consequences, assuming that a single bedsheet’s worth of coverup is just fine. And for the most part, it is⎯not until the FBI shows up after years of Hale’s siphoning does anyone really try to do anything. That’s the exact point⎯the restrictions and discriminatory practices heaped upon the Osage people are so debilitating, and so rampant, that a group of bumbling, two-bit criminals can literally get away with murder.
There are two other clear paths down which a filmmaker could have taken this story, and in a lesser director’s hands, that probably would have happened. First, this could have been a straightforward adaptation of the book, i.e., a procedural telling of the FBI’s nascency in context of its unraveling of the Osage murders. Interesting enough story (the book was a massive hit that spawned a film adaptation, after all), but we’ve seen that before. Second, it could have been an empowering story of how the Osage people finally ousted these villainous interlopers after horrible trauma⎯but that’s not the truth. That’s a very rosy interpretation of what actually happened, and even though Hale and others eventually faced a few consequences, there’s no triumph here.
That’s not to say either of those paths would never have led to a good film, but it’s more likely than not they would have turned out forgettable, raising the overall floor of the production but most likely ending up forgettable. Scorsese’s version is anything but. And of course, legendary performances from DiCaprio, De Niro, and perhaps most of all Lily Gladstone (portraying Ernest’s wife, Mollie, who more than holds her own and even steals scenes from DiCaprio), along with a $250 million production budget of which one can feel every dollar, certainly help.
Some will balk at the film’s runtime, but it’s essential. Scorsese’s restraint in unraveling the story is remarkable⎯it’s a constant drip drip of evil, paired with the slow deterioration and exasperation of the Osage people (displayed most literally through Mollie’s encouraged battle with diabetes). As a result, when the film reaches its conclusion, the story’s emotion and power hits you like a brick. Killers of the Flower Moon fits right in with Scorsese’s best, and it’s truly amazing he’s delivering like this so late in his career.