The iconic director returns with his first narrative feature in five years.
Martin Scorsese. Over the course of the director’s long and storied career, he’s made a habit of exploring subjects with intense thematic weight, his prolific filmography ever-so-steadily setting the stage for a late-career reflection upon those very subjects. The tone of these explorations varies wildly at points – satire, black comedy, somber melodrama. Yet he often returns to the same themes, over and over again, developing his trademarks as steadily as his craft. From his earliest dives into the psyches of broken men to his escalation in interrogating broken ways of life and then broken systems, Scorsese continues to prod us with the questions of “how,” “who,” “why,” and finally, “what happens now?” But these are not questions answered by the stories he tells; they’re questions for the audience, with no clear or easy answers on the other side. Or, if there are clear or easy answers, they are meant to make us uneasy, force us to reflect. In the case of Killers of the Flower Moon, these questions seem clear-cut at the beginning; by the end, they take on an entirely new form, and their answers bear a crushing, soul-shaking weight.
The Osage. Both subject and object of the story being told. Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from World War I to Fairfax in Osage County, Oklahoma in order to work for his uncle Bill Hale (Robert De Niro). The Osage who live in the area have become rich after having found oil on their land, though there are certain restrictions placed upon some Osages’ wealth by “sponsors” whose job it is to deem how fit they are to spend their money and how much of it. Upon finding work as a chauffeur – one of the only jobs he can perform due to a wartime injury – Ernest begins to drive around Mollie Kyle, a member of a wealthy Osage family, and Hale takes notice of their proximity to one another, suggesting to Ernest that if he were to pursue Mollie, her estate money would come to them. Ernest and Mollie strike up a bond, marrying soon after their relationship begins. Meanwhile, the Osage begin to die off, one by one, with little or no investigation from the authorities as to what or who may have been the cause of death. Over the next three hours and twenty-six minutes, Scorsese investigates not only what came to be known as the Osage Reign of Terror, but crucially its architects, its enablers, and offers the ultimate rebuke of how stories like it are treated.
From a storytelling and craft perspective, Killers of the Flower Moon is an astonishing piece, a great film at first blush which only improves the more time one spends with it. Like all of the director's great works, it almost requires a second viewing to fully appreciate everything it's doing, even if one does pick up on most of it the first time around. There are certainly times in which the film lulls, but it never truly drags, a testament both to editing legend Thelma Schoonmaker's immense and enduring talents, especially paired with Scorsese’s deft storytelling hand; not every minute feels crucial, per se, but every last one of them feels essential nonetheless. Schoonmaker’s work here in particular here could – and probably should – net her yet another Oscar win (this would make it her fourth) and it still wouldn't cover all she's contributed to cinema. That’s to say nothing of the immaculate cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, whose camera is still when it needs to be, but sweeping in all the right places, as well as the late Robbie Robertson’s final and brilliant score. Robertson’s music is designed specifically to lull the viewer into believing that Killers may be yet another gangster crime movie from Scorsese, but soon gives way to something much more sinister: a case study of evil, racial violence, greed, and complicity. It is, without doubt, one of the best scores of the year.
Beyond the technical mastery present around every frame, the film also boasts some of the year’s best work by its towering ensemble cast. (In fact, between this film and Oppenheimer, 2023’s character actor heat sheet is so chock full of great stuff in every margin, it’s difficult to decide which film has the better ensemble overall.) There are any number of great turns, from Jason Isbell to William Belleau to Scott Sheperd to Cara Jade Myers to Louis Cancelmi to Tatanka Means to Tommy Schultz to John Lithgow to Brendan Fraser. But they all rest on the shoulders of the towering three: a top-of-his-game Leonardo DiCaprio, an insidiously sinister Robert De Niro, and a revelatory Lily Gladstone. Of these three lead performances, in fact, DiCaprio comes out in third to my mind, with De Niro’s cold, calculated agent of evil proving the man still knows how to act when he’s put in the right hands. It’s Gladstone who runs away with the film, though; the Native American actress is one of the few performers I’ve ever witnessed who’s able to share scenes with DiCaprio’s alluring star persona and sap all the attention away from him with a single look. Her expressive, weary eyes carry every scene she’s in, and it’s her resilience as Mollie Burkhart that gives the film its great heart and its great tragedy. One scene in particular at the end of the film may contain the single most heartbreaking moment of performance I’ve seen in a movie this year.
What truly sets Killers of the Flower Moon apart, though, beyond the technical craft and array of spectacular performances, is its startling ending, a remarkably powerful reflection upon everything we just witnessed and a confrontation of how we’ll move forward from having witnessed it. Without spoiling the specifics of how they are asked, the questions posed by the film’s finale focus on who's telling the story, critiquing how audiences often chew up and spit out true crime tales like it rather than sitting with and digesting what it can teach us, and even rebuking the story’s teller for being the one to do the telling, rather than those whose story this actually is. It’s almost as if Scorsese is asking us: “why am I the one telling this story? Why can’t we give Native filmmakers and storytellers the same chances I’ve had to tell their stories themselves?” Your milage may vary on how sincere those questions actually are coming from an 80-year-old white man who’s one of the most respected names in American filmmaking, but given how respectfully the film treats its subject matter, I’m more than willing to bet that he’s also considered those things, and that if there had been a way for an Osage filmmaker to tell this story with the same level of access, budget, and manpower Scorsese was allowed, the director would have rather they told the story.
In the film’s final moments, the audience is confronted with the idea that American institutions often co-opt true crime narratives to fold them into fascinating tales for entertainment’s sake, without actually considering the toll these violent acts have taken on the communities they take place in. Scorsese has been grappling with this concept more and more as he ages, as evidenced by his reflection on early romanticizations on gangster life in The Irishman and questions of faith’s true nature in Silence. In this particular case, he interrogates how Native histories have been twisted in order to prop up those same institutions which did nothing to prevent these atrocities from happening in the first place. The true evil here, beyond the violence itself, is how normal and uninteresting everything about these horrible crimes was to those in power, those who could have actually done something about it, and how we as audiences could possibly expect entertainment from stories like this.
In the end, Killers of the Flower Moon is ultimately a movie about complicity, both in times of racial violence, and in the recollection of that violence within a collective psyche. While there are no definitive answers or solutions to these confrontations, there are avenues for change, beginning with the idea that not all crime stories need be entertaining, nor should any Native stories of racial violence be turned a blind eye. And although I’m unsure how this film in particular will pair with the rest of Scorsese’s immense collection of stories, I know that there’s a reason he chose this story now, and I know that it will be sticking with me for a long, long time.
I’m giving “Killers of the Flower Moon” a 9.2/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.