Leonardo DiCaprio. Robert DeNiro. Martin Scorsese. Three immense powerhouses of the American film industry who together have shaped cinema storytelling with a diverse range of incredible narratives, and now they all come together for the haunting historical epic Killers of the Flower Moon. And this story needed to be told.
In the 1920s, members of the Osage Native American tribe of Osage County, Oklahoma, are murdered after oil is found on their land, and the FBI decides to investigate.
As one of the greatest masters of the cinematic art form, Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who continues to uphold the high art pedigree of the cinema format, and each of his projects has considerable narrative weight that comes to affect his audience deeply. His films are incredibly important to the landscape of American history and culture, and he has come to capture the American experience like no other. Now aged 80 and entering his sixth decade as a filmmaker, he brings to the screen what could be said to be the most powerful film of his career in Killers of the Flower Moon. For Scorsese, this is an immensely personal story of love, greed, fear, death and, ultimately the American landscape. The grand filmmaker has invested over six years of his life into bringing this dramatic and ultimately tragic tale of the human experience to the big screen. And you will not experience a more emotionally stirring narrative experience than this picture this year.
Scorsese serves as co-writer, producer and director of this grand opus and adapts David Grann’s award-winning book, which charts the forgotten history of a brutal collection of killings that target Native American members of the Osage tribe for their oil lease head rights and which formulated the birth of modern law enforcement through the presence of the Bureau Of Investigation, the precursor to the modern FBI. But where Grann’s book is a cut-and-dry investigation narrative, Scorsese instead takes this narrative and tells its story, but instead from an entirely different angle. And this has surprising dramatic results for audiences. Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower is, on the one hand, a giant epic that chronicles the last dying days of the American West and the corruption that modern capitalistic greed can inflict on native people. But on the other side, it is an incredibly taut, desperate and tension-laden family-psycho drama that will fill audiences with dread as we watch a family torn apart from the inside by those closest to it and all for the lust for oil and money.
For Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon is the culmative effort of his nearly six-decade career as a filmmaker, and it is an utter masterwork. Imagery, sound and performance all flow together for a seamless narrative presentation, and even with the pictures near three and a half-hour presentation, your attention never wanders. Instead, you find yourself drama into this monumental tragedy of a creeping existential horror that brings to life the dawn of the American century. Killers of the Flower Moon is a picture that should be experienced on the biggest canvas possible, and this is a picture made for the cinema experience. The lens of celebrated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures both the grand expanse of the Osage Nation and the intimate interpersonal relationships of the film’s core characters. Prieto’s balance of scale and humanity in his imagery makes for a profoundly personable image, and his lens gives the film an almost sepia tone as if stained by the blood and oil that exists at the centre of the narrative.
Central to the film’s story is Academy Award winner and Scorsese’s long-time collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio. And you’ve never seen him give a performance like this before. DiCaprio takes the central role of Ernest Burkhart, a WWI veteran with limited prospects; Ernest returns to Oklahoma and the open arms of his scheming uncle and benefactor William ‘King’ Hale. Gifted with good looks but few smarts, DiCaprio’s Ernest is a glum, slack-jawed two-bit Oakie criminal who worms his way into the presence of local Osage Tribeswomen Mollie Kyle, a native woman who has a considerable claim to Osage oil head rights. While he plays the part of a devoted suitor, Ernest is a schemer and a delinquent who is not nearly as smart as he thinks; his instant impulse leads him to plenty of poor decision-making. Described by Molly as a ‘coyote’, DiCaprio truly becomes a feral, hungry-looking beast, and the audience watches with pure horror as he skirts off to the side, just waiting to bite.
DiCaprio has a long and storied career, and he has never played a character quite like Ernest. Ernest Burkhart is far and away the most complex character he’s ever brought to life, with DiCaprio fully transforming himself into a guileless, festering character. DiCaprio plays stupid well with Ernest, and his limited empathy and unquestioning loyalty to his uncle make him an entirely seedy character. As the story progresses, Ernest goes further to possess his wife’s land and money, and even though he deeply loves Molly, he can’t help but fall into his base, sinister nature. A true coyote in human skin, Ernest is an utterly despicable human being, and credit must be given to DiCaprio’s incredible transformation of a baying and deliberate evil on screen.
Where DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart might be the hand of evil, the direction behind his despicable actions stems from his uncle William’ King’ Hale, who is brought to life with calculating malice by the great Robert DeNiro. A successful rancher and the literal ‘King of the Osage’, DeNiro’s Hale is a man of great wealth, power and influence and whose black soul hungers for more. For Hale, there is no length to which he will not go to possess the Osage wealth, and it is through his direction that the brutal killings of the Osage occur. DeNiro gives an incredible two-faced performance. On one face, he is a devoted benefactor and friend; the other, a seething, bitter and twisted devil who will go to any manipulation to get what he wants. He’s the serpent in the grass who is manipulating events from the shadows, and you feel Hale’s dark hand at every turn, and his performance is frightening.
But bringing Killers of the Flower Moon together through her dynamic and brave performance is Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart. A native Osage woman with considerable ownership of Osage oil head rights. Mollie soon becomes infatuated by DiCaprio’s Ernest, her ‘coyote’ as she names him, and the two fall in love and then marry. Their marriage is one of love and devotion, but Hale’s hand is never far, and soon, Mollie begins to suffer from it, and it’s here that the seething, slow death of the Osage begins to come to light. While the film’s events are seen through Ernest’s narrative, Mollie serves as a secondary narrator and is through her insistence that justice is finally served. Gladstone gives an incredibly brave and honest performance, and she is a natural fit in the picture between DiCaprio and DeNiro. Her role in the story is one of conviction and bravery, and audiences will feel the full extent of her emotions on screen.
Killers of the Flower Moon is by no way an easy watch. This is a film of high emotions, and its incredibly layered and contextual themes of the loss of native identity, the corruption of unchecked capitalism, and the severity of evil will have audiences in a state of contemplation days after they watch it. This is an incredibly complex and heavy watch, and of all the films of his storied career, Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s most thought-provoking work to date. Killers of the Flower Moon is a film packed with emotion, and you’ll feel spent having left the cinema, but while its narrative and the turmoil at the centre of its story are hard to watch, it’s an important narrative, and ultimately is Martin Scorsese’s gift to the Osage people.
Killers of the Flower Moon is one of this year’s most important cinema releases. It is an utter triumphant masterwork, the culminating triumph of Scorsese’s career. Everything of him as a storyteller is present in this picture, and it is without a doubt the most emotional experience you’ll have inside a cinema all year.
Image: Paramount Pictures