Martin Scorsese’s stunning 1920’s set Western opens with a lament from a waning culture, a dying way of life. The elders of the Oklahoma Osage Nation mourn the growing sterilization of their customs and traditions, where an open acceptance of white decadence, which they’ve attained through their plentiful oil reserves, has left them drifting in a sea of charlatans who will stop at nothing to usurp their growing wealth. What they call a “spiritual” death will slowly give way to a swath of literal ones, the scars of which will go unhealed for generations.
Based on David Grann’s nonfiction novel of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon, traces the same lines of criminality and moral decay as Scorsese’s other gangster epics. Yet, here it takes on strikingly tragic timbre, one that is as indicting as it is prescient, interrogating the toxicity through which American capitalism and colonialism operate.
Scorsese does so by inverting the whodunnit structure of Grann’s book, instead emphasizing the Osage and their perpetrators, who heartbreakingly, are the same people espousing their love and reverence for them. In one breath, they laud the Osage as “the most beautiful people on god’s earth”, and in the next deceive them at every turn. In capturing that painful betrayal of trust, Scorsese crafts a masterwork that will not only go down as one of the great entries in the Western canon, but one of the great American tragedies—a powerful reckoning with the greed, entitlement, and duplicity through which the West was won. It’s a rare epic that sets the record straight, deconstructing the mythos on which the country was erected.
Scorsese’s vision of this tragic tale is that of an epic three-hander, centering on the dim-witted Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), his cold, calculating rancher uncle William King Hale (Robert DeNiro), and Burkhart’s Osage wife Mollie (Lilly Gladstone), who’s willful trust is weaponized by the devils in her midst. The dynamic between these characters unfolds as a powerful melodrama, which in classical fashion, operates with an engrossing sense of uncertainty and ironic pathos. Even though it’s made evidently clear that Ernest and Mollie’s marriage will be mired in pain and deceit, the path of bullets, poison, and bombs it treads is no less shocking, especially because his love for her is true. Making us constantly question whether Ernest is the cold-blooded killer he appears to be.
It’s in this realm of subtle evil, in which loved ones become parasitic harbingers of death, where the true, sickening power of Killers of Flower Moon lies. Scorsese reminds us that the most terrifying form of evil is implicit, and often mistaken for empathy and kindness. DiCaprio and DeNiro embody such corruption with the most nuanced of touches, as they have in many past Scorsese pictures. But the two bring an eerie, even-keeled edge to their performances that are harrowing to witness. These are men who are capable of tenderness and compassion, much like the people they claim to be, but commission and carry out such heinous atrocities with an uneasy calmness.
DiCaprio, with his buffoonish charm, makes us root for a redemption that never comes. An effect that crescendos in a climactic, confessional monologue where his unwavering love for Mollie becomes the hardest pill to swallow, one that would have gone down easier if he were just another detached assailant. He embodies the distrust and treachery at the heart of America’s relationship with the Indigenous, a respect and honour that is barbed with the most corrosive of substances.
Gladstone’s work as Mollie serves as the searing conscience of Killers of the Flower Moon. Her role is largely symbolic in nature, a stand-in for a tribe who has been corrupted by the promise of the American dream, but it also teems with individuality. Gladstone toes the line between emblem and character gracefully, imbuing Mollie with relatable hopes and desires, which are muddled by her adoration for a husband who would vastly benefit from her death while also reciprocating that same love.
It’s a complex web of emotions given force by Rodrigo Pietro’s sweeping yet intimate cinematography. He and Scorsese craft a bustling, lived-in historical account that is flush with raw beauty, both rugged and painterly. The two capture a solemnly resplendent Oklahoma landscape that is home to some of the most enduring, and soon-to-be-iconic images of the American frontier, especially in a dazzling sequence where the fumes of hellish crop fire consume the screen, leaving only stark silhouettes in their wake.
Killers of the Flower Moon is also a deeply allegorical experience, employing resonant metaphors for death while evoking the verdant plains of the Osage afterlife. Scorsese concocts the kind of historical epic that has all but gone extinct today, an opus that is both grand in filmic scope and thematic power.
The final hour, which features the Stetson-sporting FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), brings the film’s dream-like aura back down to earth, with a bevy of harsh, manner-of-fact proceedings, replete with dimly lit jail cells and damning courtroom sequences. These moments implode each relationship and reveal a civilization, both native and non-native, tarnished by American vice. It culminates in a heart-wrenching final scene where Mollie confronts Ernest and the unsettling truth that has long evaded her.
It’s only fitting this story ends with a slyly theatrical summation that has come to close out many “true crime” stories, albeit with a strong wistful undercurrent. Yet, the image Killers of the Flower Moon leaves us with is not one of despair but of resilience, an ode to Osage endurance in the face of unspeakable tragedy. And in doing so, Scorsese weaves a critical patch in the ever-growing quilt of reconciliation.
Killers of the Flower Moon is playing in theaters October 20th