It’s testament to the sheer, unrivalled brilliance of the venerable storyteller Martin Scorsese, than while depicting a film that has one of the most shocking, compelling narratives of any film this year, coupled with a small handful of some of the year’s very best performances – that what we’re still talking about most, is the craft of which this story has been presented.
There can’t be much higher praise here than to merely cite this as a proper Scorsese flick; it has all the familiar tropes and sensibilities we associate to his canon of work, and yet killers of the Flower Moon remains original, and near-impossible to second guess. Which, coincidentally, is one of the aforementioned tropes.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a true-crime epic, that transports the viewer back to 1920s Oklahoma, where the discovery of oil has created an enviable affluence amongst the Osage people, to a point where they are being chauffeured around by white drivers. One of which is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), the nephew of local magnate William Hale (Robert De Niro); a close ally of the Osage people on the surface, but what lies beneath is a twisted, greedy individual who will stop at nothing to procure more wealth and power.
One such way he plans to make more money, is by encouraging his nephew to marry an Osage, and in particular, the wealthy Mollie (Lily Gladstone), with a long-term view of being left with her family’s inheritance and land. Ernest is not alone in being a local white man marrying an Osage woman – and with this comes the very uncoincidental, untimely deaths of several of the Osage community, causing the FBI, fronted by Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to investigate this alarming rate of suspicious deaths.
The structure and slow-burning pacing is masterful on this occasion. There’s a somewhat frenetic opening act, as we strive to understand exactly what story is being told, and then when it presents itself, a chill travels down your spine. Scorsese has often delved into the underbelly of society, with a focus on nefarious criminality – but this film may have his most despicable, reprehensible characters yet – and that’s saying something.
The depiction of evil is so profoundly impactful, for in Ernest we see humanity. We see a sense of regret. This is rare, as so often filmmakers feel that they need to strip evil people of their humanity, as though those who commit such unspeakable wrongdoings are aliens we simply cannot understand. But the sad reality is that they are not; they exist, and whether we like to admit it or not, they are humans too, just like we are, and this films serves as a striking, and unsettling reminder of this fact. To give these characters their humanity makes their actions even more harrowing. Scorsese doesn’t absolve Ernest by giving him guilt, far from it. There’s no forgiveness on offer here.
To bring the complexity of this role to life, there are few better than DiCaprio, and he carries all of the above and more, in one of the finest performances of his career, in what surely must be one of his trickiest. De Niro also delivers a late masterclass, bringing such wickedness and immorality to the screen. But while we anticipate such remarkable showings from these two actors, it’s the newcomer Lily Gladstone who truly took our breath away. She is the victim of the evil, she has to watch on as all of those she holds dear are murdered around her, to know that she is being betrayed – and without the safety net of dialogue, she manages to display the horrors with just the nuances of her facial expressions and eyes. It’s a devastatingly impactful performance, where you feel like she’s a painting, one that represents victimhood in all its anguish – immortalised in history.
The word masterpiece is over-used, but on this occasion it’s an apt way to describe this Scorsese production. Though a “late” masterpiece is probably the best way of describing it, for he’s already has his fair share of early and middle-career ones. There has been much said of the run-time but you barely feel it here. It takes this long to tell this story, because this story demands it. Just be thankful we’re still being gifted Scorsese’s work. There should be no controversy nor complaint about a long Scorsese film – every last second is a present, so appreciate them all here – every 12360 of them.
Killers of the Flower Moon is out now.