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Killers of the Flower Moon Review

October 20, 2023 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Killers of the Flower Moon Image Credit: Apple TV+, Paramount Pictures
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Killers of the Flower Moon Review  

Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth; Based on the book by David Grann
Runtime: 206 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language

Leonardo DiCaprio – Ernest Burkhart
Robert De Niro – William King Hale
Lily Gladstone – Mollie Burkhart
Tantoo Cardinal – Lizzie Q
Scott Shepherd – Byron Burkhart
William Belleau – Henry Roan
Jesse Plemons – Tom White
Sturgill Simpson – Henry Grammer
Tommy Schultz – Blackey Thompson
Steve Witting – Dr. James Shoun
Steve Routman – Dr. David Shoun
Louis Cancelmi – Kelsie Morrison
Pete Yorn – Acie Kirby
John Lithgow – Prosecutor Peter Leaward
Brendan Fraser – W. S. Hamilton

Killers of Flower Moon marks the latest picture from legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Based on the book of the same name by David Grann, Scorsese brings to vivid life the tragic, disturbing story of the Osage Nation murders taking place in the 1920s. In doing so, Scorsese reveals a very unsavory, yet important, chapter in American history that reflects the great injustice continually revisited against America’s indigenous people. The progress that was supposed to come with the 20th century seems nothing more than an illusion to the Osage people living in the community of Fairfax, Oklahoma, who are still targeted and persecuted by the greed of “civilized” citizens.

Scorsese’s film is mainly told through the perspective of Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a veteran of The Great War, who arrives in Fairfax early in the story to report to his uncle, William King Hale (De Niro). In the community of Fairfax, Hale is an affluent, powerful man who is well known and beloved by the community, with his hands in every pie. Except there is one problem. Hale is running Fairfax’s cattle business, while his ambition aims higher. The reservation land granted to the Osage people when they were forced to make it their new home is barren. It lacks fertile resources save for one: oil. The Osage tribe controls the ownership and distribution of the oil rights in Fairfax, bringing the tribe copious wealth and prosperity, but it comes at the price of envy and resentment. William King Hale symbolically represents the oppression against Native Americans, presenting himself as a friend and ally to the Osage while he enacts a widespread conspiracy to take away their wealth and legally granted land rights.

Ernest arrives in Fairfax looking for an opportunity. He’s a simple, somewhat dimwitted young man who experienced great hardship during the war. Ernest is malleable and weak-willed, easily manipulated by his conniving uncle. At his uncle’s behest, Ernest is encouraged to pursue a relationship with a member of the Osage tribe in the hope of gaining control of their oil headrights. He soon forms a romantic relationship with Osage tribeswoman Mollie Kyle (Gladstone), the daughter of an Osage family who has a family inheritance of lucrative oil rights. Scorsese accurately depicts the prejudices of the time. Despite the Osage tribe gaining legal wealth, indigenous people like Mollie were not allowed to manage their own finances and were deemed legally “incompetent.” Therefore, white “guardians” were appointed to manage their assets.

Ernest begins courting Mollie. Despite her early suspicions, she begins to reciprocate his feelings. The two eventually marry and start a family. However, this concurrently happens while Osage headright owners are systematically murdered under mysterious circumstances, and it soon becomes clear that Hale and his relatives, including Ernest, are engaging in criminal activity. Although Ernest claims to genuinely love Mollie, he appears disconnected regarding his love for his wife and the willing and voluntary atrocities he commits upon her family and the Osage.

Nearly three and a half hours in length, there is no getting around that Killers of the Flower Moon is a long movie. At the same time, Scorsese has crafted a disturbing, unsettling, yet deeply rewarding, experience about grave human injustice. With a $200 million budget, he spared no expense in making sure the plight of the Osage people is brought to light. The conspiracy Hale encapsulates the repeated injustices committed against Native Americans. The Osage arrive into the 20th century, at last achieving wealth and success. However, some white proprietors deemed them “incompetent” to manage their finances and confiscates their land, culture, and livelihood. The colonialism of the previous centuries is now repeating itself in a different form.

Scorsese, with his unflinching vision, takes great care to document the conspiracy and atrocities inflicted upon Mollie Burkhart and the Osage. The film’s most significant failing is that the perspective of the Osage gets lost midway through the film. There is no real mystery surrounding the conspiracy. The narrative quickly gives away Hale’s and his accomplices’ motives. So, the movie leans into the activities of Hale, Ernest, and their circle as they systematically target Mollie’s family, meaning that Ernest is also participating in the execution of his legal relatives.

Lily Gladstone delivers a tremendous, layered performance as Mollie Kyle. She is more than just a victim. Gladstone is the emotional core of the story and puts a sympathetic face to the cruelty committed against the Osage and exceptionally represents the beating heart of the Osage people, their pride, and their traditions. The Osage are a noble and kind group. Unfortunately, their kindness is routinely abused and exploited. The main problem is that Mollie’s perspective gets buried beneath Scorsese’s narrative, which heavily leans into the arcs of Ernest and Hale.

With the focus on the crimes of Ernest and Hale, Killers of the Flower Moon takes the shape of a classic Martin Scorsese crime drama, but through a country western lens. Many scenes look interestingly familiar to some of Scorsese’s previous works, but the crime sequences take on a more rural, blue-collar vibe. The mix of Scorsese’s trademark crime drama style with the 1920s rural Oklahoman setting adds a unique flavor to the overall experience.

The film is darkly funny at times. Multiple sequences are sardonically amusing, such as when Hale and Ernest’s brother Byron (Shepherd) perform a masonic ritualized flogging on Ernest as punishment for screwing up a job. Mileage may vary, but Scorsese imbues the film with a surprisingly dry wit.

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an incredible performance that’s believable and remarkably consistent. De Niro’s trademark charisma carries through in his performance as Hale, but his weak southern accent wildly varies throughout the film. DiCaprio disappears into the role of Ernest Burkhart, whereas De Niro as William Hale is clearly a “De Niro role.” That said, De Niro succeeds in the execution of Scorsese’s depiction of a two-faced businessman who feigns friendship only to con and murder those same friends while standing above them on a corrupt pedestal of superiority. To call William King Hale a reptile in human skin would be an insult to reptiles.

Without giving much away, Scorsese provides one of the best, freshest takes on the cinematic post-script in recent memory. A post-script moment in a film such as this is a foregone conclusion, but Scorsese produces a genuinely surprising and impressive execution of the post-script that mostly justifies the film’s nearly three-and-a-half-hour length.

Issues aside, Killers of the Flower Moon is not a masterpiece, but it’s still a deeply exceptional and well-made cinematic experience.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Even at 80 years old, Martin Scorsese hasn't lost his touch as a filmmaker who provides a brutal reflection on a horrible event in human history when the Osage nation experiences a second genocide. A tragic sadness pervades the film as the Osage tribe faces the loss of their land and family, and with the development of civilization and assimilation, they run the risk of losing their culture and traditions as well. While there are problems with the perspective and experiences of the Osage people getting lost throughout the film, those thematic ideas still stand out well. Killers of the Flower Moon is a deeply disturbing and unsettling film, but it's a real-life story that everyone should learn.