Killers of the Flower Moon
Updated: Nov 25
Martin Scorsese delivers a great take on the American tragedy
Many films have tried to capture the “essence of America” and arguably a few have been able to, from The Godfather (1972), to The Will Be Blood (2007), or Do the Right Thing (1989), however, many more ambitious projects have faltered as their scope and subject proved too unwieldy (just look at Heaven’s Gate (1980)). Yet, Martin Scorsese has decided to tackle on the subject in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).
Killers of the Flower Moon is the true story of the systemic killings of oil-rich native Americans in 1920s Osage, Oklahoma. We follow the dense WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he comes under the care of his uncle and town-patriarch King (Robert DeNiro), on whose advice and urges Ernest begins to wheedle his way into the indigenous Osage community, marrying the wealthy Mollie (Lily Gladstone).
The harrowing true story, no doubt bears the echoes of the Tulsa Massacre that occurred at the same time in the same state. Killers of the Flower Moon mentions the massacre and even has a moment of exclamation “it’s like Tulsa!” when a house is bombed. This conjoining of the destruction of wealthy racial minorities is shown as a continuous pattern within American history, Scorsese not one to shy away from America’s ugly sins, or showcase how history buried these events (the Tulsa massacre was only brought back into mainstream historical thought after the show Watchmen (2019) used it in its opening scene).
While we focus on Ernest and Mollie’s story, Scorsese is much more rapt with capturing the community as a whole of Osage, showing how the villains and victims in this story are not so much individuals as collective groups. This necessitates Killers of the Flower Moon’s lengthy runtime of three and a half hours. It is only through the careful rendering of constant exploitation, violence, greed, and murder that Scorsese can illustrate that violence on indigenous communities is systemic instead of exceptional. Killers of the Flower Moondemands patience, but rewards those that sit it out, reminding some of the similar endurance test with rewarding end that The Beatles: Get Back (2021) donned. A shorter film could certainly have been made, taking out some murders that inform the thesis, but this would have watered down the ubiquity of the cruelty.
Scorsese’s long runtime permits him to prod into multiple facets of American life and tragedy, from the skepticism of racial minorities towards white institutions, what decentralized power and “freedom” mean to different groups, the ease with which ignorance is manipulated into racism by powerful elites, and the ruthlessness of capitalistic greed. None of Scorsese’s thematic explorations ever feel preachy or pandering towards some ulterior political point, but rather are inextricably linked to the very true story that is being told on screen. Echoes of films such as Giant (1956) and The Will Be Blood can be seen in these themes, but the added dimension of the exploitation of indigenous peoples, proving to be the essential final layer that those two films had been missing in its study of the ugliness of the “American Dream.”
Apple and Paramount teamed up to help Scorsese bring about this years-old dream project on the screen, placing $200 million budget that makes this the most expensive biopic or R-rated picture of all time. The money spent is certainly seen and appreciated, from the fantastic real sets to the use of practical effects that exacerbate violent moments, and the gorgeous costuming and make-up (finally a period piece where actor’s teeth don’t feel like they do biannual cleanings at the dentist!). Other technical aspects, such as the gorgeously pondering cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto and the understated and timely 1920s music from composer Robbie Robertson, help add to the immersive elements that bring us into 1920s Osage.
Scorsese brings together two of his frequent collaborators for the first time with DiCaprio and DeNiro, and both actors are more than up to par. DiCaprio’s take on a conflicted and manipulated dunce-head is an unforgiving role we’re not accustomed to see him in. His hunched body and protruding lower jaw will make viewers forget they’re watching the film star and believe they’re observing a Dickensian tragic hero. DeNiro meanwhile relishes the manipulative and posher Uncle King, stoking the malice and insatiable greed with an enthusiasm I hadn’t seen in a performance of his in years. One of the breakouts of the film, however, is Lily Gladstone as Mollie. Gladstone is forced to communicate most of her character without dialogue, transmitting messages of frustration, impatience, and isolating fear through a stoic brave fave. You feel the inescapable plight of the indigenous community through her, of having nowhere to run, no one to protect you, and only death and pain waiting ahead.
Killers of the Flower Moon proves to be one of Scorsese’s best. The long runtime is sure to test viewers, but those that hold out will experience one of the greatest encapsulations of the American tragedy put to screen. Aided by a fabulous cast and utilizing its enormous budget to great potential, Killers of the Flower Moon is not only one of this year’s best films, but an instant classic as well.