By Bradley Lane
The legacy of Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest and most accomplished filmmakers of all time has been cemented for years now, and yet Killers of the Flower Moon represents a radical risk for the filmmaker. Adapting the nonfiction book of the same name by journalist David Grann, Scorsese’s new film is a pointed and challenging work that asks its audience how each one of us participates in and complicitly facilitates systems of violence and oppression. Proving again he is on a level of craft unparalleled in modern cinema, Killers of the Flower Moon is an uncompromising masterpiece.
In the late 1920s the Osage American Indian tribe became the wealthiest nation per capita on Earth after striking oil on the land they had been forced onto by the federal government. They bargained for the rights to the resources on the land and this catapulted them into incredible wealth seemingly overnight. However, this wealth soon became threatening to white Americans in power, and the government soon passed laws requiring white guardians be appointed to control the estates of the Osage. This led to widespread fraud, and eventually a vast conspiracy of murder and deception.
Killers puts audiences in the perspective of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DeCaprio), a white man married to an Osage woman named Molly (Lily Gladstone). Over the course of the film we see how their loving relationship slowly becomes twisted into something abhorrent by greed and the plotting of Ernest’s uncle, William Hale (Robert DeNiro). This relationship is slowly revealed to be a microcosm of the historical and modern-day systems that perpetuate dehumanization and systemic oppression.
The real historical violence that was committed against the Osage is rendered in shocking detail, but never feels exploitative or salacious. Shot in stunningly composed wide angles, Scorsese takes a frank, objective approach to depicting these heinous acts. Smartly, the film also very quickly removes the mystery of the book in favor of telling a more tragic narrative where information is conveyed to the audience before the characters, again as a mechanism designed to protect the story from becoming exploitative or lurid in its depictions of atrocity.
It should go without saying that both DeCaprio and DeNiro deliver incredible performances, but relative newcomer Lily Gladstone steals the show, even in her limited role. Make no mistake though, more than anyone else, the film is about Molly, but it only functions that way thanks to a powerfully moving depiction of love and grief delivered with poise by Gladstone’s subtle gestures and endlessly expressive eyes.
Much has been said about the film’s nearly three-and-a-half-hour runtime, but not a moment here is wasted. It should be viewed as a sign of respect, both for the audience and the Osage people. Scorsese trusts in the audiences’ capacity for continued investment, but more importantly it shows respect for the story that no shortcuts were taken in the production for the sake of profit margins or economical storytelling.
Any filmmaker could have told this story and made it sufficiently horrific and sad, but Martin Scorsese is not just any filmmaker. His vision for the film is as instructional as it is educational. The film boldly implores its audience to consider how our own biases and actions serve to perpetuate systems of oppression and interrogate how each of us can stand up to the evils of greed and colonization that haunt America to this day. Killers of the Flower Moon is provocative, intelligent and beautiful. See Killers of the Flower Moon in theaters now. – 5/5 stars