Martin Scorsese is 80 years old and has been making feature films since the late 1960s. How many masterpieces has he made in that time? Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas certainly earn that designation. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore deserves to. Some would make the claim about The Last Waltz, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman. I’d personally put Hugo in there. The director’s track record is astounding. His latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, is absolutely a masterpiece and one of the best films of Scorsese’s whole career.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Ernest Burkhart, a former reservist who comes to the Osage nation in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The native Americans who own that land discovered it was packed with oil, leading them to great riches. That wealth has brought schemers like Ernest’s uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a guy who positions himself as an ally of the Osage people, yet conspires to gain control of their money. He encourages his nephew to romance Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a woman who stands to receive a large inheritance someday. She and Ernest are soon married. Meanwhile, a series of murders takes place, leading J. Edgar Hoover to send FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to investigate.
Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic work, running three hours and twenty-six minutes. Scorsese uses the time perfectly. The first hour allows us to settle into the Osage nation, meeting its residents and witnessing their customs. That allows developments in the second and third hours to become richer and deeper. We fully grasp what the Native community stands to lose. With that in place, the plot goes from macro to micro, depicting how Ernest gets pulled into King’s plan, along with how that’s frequently at odds with the love he feels for Mollie.
The sprawling story is always engrossing, ensuring the lengthy running time flies right by. Scorsese, adapting David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name, relates a specific historical event while simultaneously speaking to the plight of many Native tribes who found themselves exploited by outsiders. Of particular interest is the subtle way King outlines a way of stealing from the Osage. He keeps track of inheritances, then gets his associates to marry into families as a means of switching the tracks those inheritances are on. The film makes a strong statement against the treatment of these people by individuals with no legitimate claim to the benefits their oil has made possible.
Outstanding performances from the ensemble cast bring the tale vividly to life. DiCaprio has never been better, convincingly playing Ernest as a not-terribly-bright guy who is easily manipulated by his conniving uncle. The actor has a couple scenes in the last act where he allows the character’s frustration to explode. His work is powerful. As King Hale, De Niro gives another superb turn. He nails the duplicitous nature of the man, who sneakily wins the Osage community’s trust, only to betray it. A demon resides behind his seemingly benevolent exterior.
Then, at the picture’s heart, is Lily Gladstone. She conveys the heartbreak Mollie feels seeing friends and family members murdered. Whereas her male co-stars are tasked with dramatizing the overt crimes taking place, Gladstone is in charge of imparting the tragedy. Her emotion-laden performance provides the movie with its soul.
Gorgeous cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto (Barbie) immerses us in the period and Robbie Robertson’s stirring score heightens the action onscreen. Killers of the Flower Moon has been crafted at the highest possible level. What you most take away from it, though, is an understanding of the shameful mistreatment the Osage experienced. History is often ugly, and this chapter allows Scorsese to explore the themes of entitlement, racism, and ownership. Like I said, the movie is a masterpiece.
out of four
Killers of the Flower Moon is rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language. The running time is 3 hours and 26 minutes.