Synopsis: In the early 20th century, after the Osage nation find oil in their previously worthless land, an assortment of various white parasites and ne’er-do-wells descend upon the Osage with ill intent. Into this situation arrives Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dimwitted layabout with big dreams and bigger appetites, who soon falls under the sway of his uncle, the powerful William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro). Slowly but surely, the two men conspire to literally and figuratively bleed the Osage dry, starting with Ernest’s new wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone). Yet there is a hitch in the plan, as Ernest’s feelings towards Mollie might be driven by more than just a desire for her money …
1. Ten years ago, on my personal social media page, I marveled at how a septuagenarian Martin Scorsese had directed The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a film brimming with so much invention and vitality that it felt like the work of a much younger man. A decade later, I’m here to tell you that an octogenarian Martin Scorsese has directed Killers of the Flower Moon, a film brimming with so much invention and vitality that it feels like – actually, no, scratch that. As tempting as it may be to draw the easy parallel, Flower Moon does not feel like the work of a youthful director at all. This is a film that could only have been made by a wizened master with decades of experience. Unlike Wolf, which feels of a similar standard and style of its 70s-90s brethren, Flower Moon is something closer to Silence (2016) in the meditative way it contemplates not just its grand themes and ideas, but also on the entirety of Scorsese’s creative life as a filmmaker and storyteller. It is, god willing, not going to be the full stop in one of cinema’s most superlative careers, 1 but in the unfortunate instance that it is, it would be hard to think of a better way to bow out. It is an undisputed masterpiece exhibiting the craftsmanship and artistry we have come to expect, but more importantly, it is one of Scorsese’s most timely and relevant films, and a searing indictment of the ways in which marginalised groups have been exploited for centuries.
2. But first, I have to talk about the unavoidable. It’s too fucking long. It speaks to the quality of Flower Moon that I can say that it would be an almost perfect three-hour film, but at three hours twenty minutes, it seriously tested even this Marty fanatic’s patience. The last hour and a half in particular, has a pretty bad habit of reiterating things the audience already knows, with the most glaring offender being a scene where a character recounts a murder he committed in great detail, only to be followed by … showing the murder on screen exactly as he said it happened. Far be it for me to tell Martin motherfucking Scorsese how to do his job, but was that really necessary? Why not a voiceover paired with the scene? Hell, why bother with the scene if the dialogue did its job? Another moment that just did not quite click for me was a key plot development in the last twenty minutes of the film that led to a major character decision … that, without spoiling anything, reversed a prior reversal of a prior character decision, which made the first reversal feel like a complete waste of time. BBC film critic Mark Kermode has suggested that the bloated running time might be due to Apple financing the movie, leading Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker to put the film together with an eye for the more leisurely rhythms of home viewing rather than the cinematic experience, but that’s not an argument I find convincing.
3. And now that I’ve gotten my only complaint of the film out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff – and boy is there a lot of it. I’ll start with the fact that this is one of the finest examples of world-building ever committed to the big screen, with every aspect of turn of the century Osage country rendered in gloriously authentic detail. Beyond the impeccable production and art design, Flower Moon‘s sense of authenticity is also bolstered by how Scorsese (and co-writer Eric Roth, of Forrest Gump (1994) screenplay fame) conveys the minutest of details on how this society works. Every faction, character, and legal framework that underpins the systemic exploitation of the Osage is developed, from the way in which Catholic 2 rituals intermingle uneasily with Native ones in the live of the Osage, to the telling way in which everyone expects every female Osage character to eventually marry a white man. But this is not just history for history’s sake, as Scorsese and Roth are very deliberate in the events that they choose to refer to – the Trail of Tears, the appointment of J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, and the Tulsa Race Massacre – all historical moments that calcify the vice-like grip of the white majority at the expense of everyone else.
4. But it would be folly to think of Flower Moon as just a staid laundry list of historical facts and details, because how could it be when the man behind the camera is famously gifted at plunging the viewer into the headspace of his characters? Take the slow, POV tracking shot, deployed twice in the film to show Mollie’s perspective as she makes her way through a train station and a crime scene respectively, as she suffers the unrelenting gaze of the white people around her. Or the multiple murder scenes, filmed in pitiless medium shot, eschewing close-ups for an almost forensic objectivity, with each burst of violence so brutal and shocking, it caused multiple audience members in my theatre to gasp loudly. Or the dreamy, impressionistic moment where De Niro’s Hale stands above a burning field while his minions toil in silhouette, a devil in charge of his hellish fiefdom as DiCaprio’s Ernest sweats and stews in tight close-up in his room. Martin Scorsese has been doing this shit for a very long time, and each one of these moments is a reminder that there is nobody better at providing a visceral jolt of emotion in all of film history. But even the subtler things are nothing short of masterful, from the way in which the reflection of Hale’s glasses always seem to hint at his thought processes, to the hard cuts from an act of violence to its sombre aftermath, or even the moments where Scorsese eschews all flashiness and just allows the camera to linger on his phenomenal stable of actors as they deliver blustering confessions, with the refusal to cut away deepening the darkly humorous irony of their self-serving justifications. 3
5. And is it ever a murderer’s crew (quite literally) of talent in front of the camera. In the minor roles, Scott Shepherd continues to be excellent at playing creepy violent lunatics, thanks to his role as Ernest’s brother in this and as David in The Last of Us, while Tommy Schulz, Louis Cancelmi, Ty Mitchell and Sturgill Simpson acquit themselves admirably as the various lowlifes that Hale and Ernest hire to do their dirty work. Jesse Plemons, as the ostensible ‘hero’ of the story, has little to do, but overall does a fine job at projecting decency and competence, which sets him far apart from the rest of the characters in this film. In the lead roles, both of Scorsese’s long-time leading men are as good as they’ve ever been. De Niro in particular resurrects the spirit of his 70s work to put on his best ever late-career performances, with his ‘King’ Hale being one of the all-time great villain portrayals, in no small part thanks to the avuncular charisma the legendary actor imbues him with, while also none-too-subtly showing the murderous greed that lies beneath. Hale is a man who has lived and breathed his own bullshit for so long that it’s impossible to tell how much he truly is aware of the evil he is committing, and De Niro does an awesome job of plumbing the depths of his sociopathy. As for Leonardo DiCaprio, all I have to say is that winning that elusive Oscar in 2016 might be the best thing that has ever happened to him, because it seems to have finally opened him up to take on roles beyond ‘tortured antihero’ and move onto more interesting characters. Ernest Burkhart continues a journey begun in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), with DiCaprio once again shedding his movie-star ego to play a simple-minded, pathetic buffoon. There are moments in the first part of the film, especially during the courtship scene, where he activates that raffish, rakish charm, but for the rest of the movie, he degenerates into a helpless mess. It’s not quite as good as his performance in Hollywood as it feels a little too much like ACTING! (a common DiCaprio issue), but I give him kudos for belatedly leaving aside his vanity to expand his repertoire. And yet, the film belongs not to two of the most titanic (pun!) movie stars of all time, but to the relatively unknown Lily Gladstone, 4 who just fucking … owns all of it, man. It’s a towering, tragic perfomance that carries the emotional weight of the film, that exhibits range from the subtlest of glances to a spine-chilling primal scream when she discovers one particular death. The difficulty involved in playing this character, who is simultaneously smarter than everyone around her and yet has no choice but to bury that intelligence for her own survival, who is aware enough to know that Ernest is making a play for her money but unable to stop herself from falling in love with him, who seethes with a simmering rage at the injustices meted on her and her people but can see no escape – the difficulty involved is unbelievable, and yet Gladstone doesn’t just succeed, but excels all possible expectations. If there is any justice in the world, (there isn’t, as this film continually states) this will be Gladstone’s platform to become one of the leading actors of her generation, and it will be very richly deserved.
6. This brings me to the ending of the film, which is quite possibly one of the bravest and most ingenious denouements I’ve seen in recent years. As mentioned, the last hour of the movie drags a little, thanks in part to the sidelining of Gladstone’s Mollie, the repetition of key plot points the audience has already seen, and the fact that three-and-half hours is just too fucking much to bear. But right when Flower Moon is beginning to flag, Scorsese pulls out all the stops to deliver an absolute humdinger of an ending, with three consecutive scenes that just floored me. I won’t get too heavy into the specifics, but I’ll put it this way – the first of these scenes, which one could call the ‘real ending’ of the movie’s plot, would be spectacular enough on its own, particularly because of how perfectly Gladstone underplays a vital confrontation that has been simmering throughout. But it’s the next two scenes that truly elevate Flower Moon, as Scorsese quite literally reflects on his participation in the enterprise of transmuting this horrific historical tragedy into what is ultimately mass entertainment for the consumption of a primarily non-Osage audience. It is a move that should be unsurprising for the guy who is no stranger to a meta ending, 5 yet the fact that Scorsese puts himself front and centre as almost a mea culpa still manages to make the moment feel provocative and resonant. Then there’s the final shot, which might be one of the most beautiful final shots in all of cinema, a transcendental moment where we see that regardless of the oppression and abuse the Osage have faced, they have managed to survive against all odds.
7. To end this review, I want to take a slight detour to talk about something another legendary filmmaker (who was recently namechecked by Scorsese) has said. Quentin Tarantino has long maintained that he will retire after his next film, claiming that he never wants to be in a situation where his late-career work drops in quality, famously citing the example of Alfred Hitchcock. This observation rings true when you consider the rest of Scorsese’s New Hollywood brethren – Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, de Palma, Bogdanovich, etc. all are nowhere near the level they were at when they were young and hungry in the 70s and 80s. But here we are, in 2023, with the eighty-year-old Scorsese delivering a masterpiece that stands tall amongst (and this cannot be stressed nearly enough) the greatest filmography of any Hollywood filmmaker. The great man has bemoaned that he is far closer to the end than the beginning, and has wished that he would be able to truly harness the possibilities that new filmmaking technology affords. Ignoring the fact that such advances in filmmaking would not exist without him, or how refreshing it is to have an all-time legend look ahead rather than fetishising the past (which Tarantino is very guilty of), a statement like this is why he is the exception to Tarantino’s rule, and why Killers of the Flower Moon is as cogent and resonant and masterful as any work from the many pretenders to his throne. Why does Scorsese remain so relevant to cinema at eighty? It’s because he fucking loves it more than anyone else ever has, and that unquenchable passion for his art suffuses each and every single frame of Flower Moon. It is such a gift to have Scorsese continue to lead the charge of making cinematic art at this stage of his career, and I look forward to each and every single one he has remaining. All hail Martin Scorsese, the patron saint of cinema, and long may his blessings rain upon us.
- Scorsese has multiple planned projects in the works.
- Of course.
- This is already running long, so unfortunately I can only include this in a footnote. Director of Photography Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is stunning. I would frame this movie up with any other legendary photography of the American West.
- At this point, your not-so-humble critic will pat himself on the back for first noticing Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), where she plays a lonely rancher who becomes enamoured with Kristen Stewart’s big-city lawyer when a chance encounter brings them together, in a subtle and affecting perfomance.
- The unreliable ending of Taxi Driver, Jake LaMotta literally turning his life story into stand-up comedy in Raging Bull, Rupert Pupkin’s stage dreams coming true in The King of Comedy, Goodfellas‘ direct address to camera, The Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belfort selling his life story as a new scam – take your pick of any of this murderer’s row of superlative endings.