Film review: Killers Of The Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese creates another masterpiece with a very American tale of greed, corruption, prejudice and murder, Killers Of The Flower Moon…

Film review: Killers Of The Flower Moon
Nick Ruskell

At the turn of the 20th century, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma discovered an embarrassment of oil on their land. With a legally recognised claim on it, and a system of royalties established for the people of the tribe, by the early 1920s they had become some of the wealthiest people in America, if not the world. Some numbers have the eventual annual windfall to the Osage people at somewhere around $400 million, in today’s money.

With the arrival this good fortune, the Osage also fell victim to a spate of killings, many of which were related to the legal “headrights” to the land, and thus the oil, and thus the money, and many of which also went unsolved. Upwards of 60 murders were recorded through the 1920s, and some historians have posited the notion that the number could actually come into the hundreds. With it is also painted a grim picture of corruption, injustice and institutionalised racism.

This is the story told through Killers Of The Flower Moon, the latest film by legendary director Martin Scorsese, which won no end of praise when it was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and which some have called the 80-year-old’s finest work in three decades (a reminder here: that’s a period that includes Casino, The Departed and The Wolf Of Wall Street). Based on American journalist David Grann’s book of the same name, which unpacked the events in the style of a hard-boiled airport thriller, here it is brought to life in similar style, a classic Scorsese crime drama in which life is cheap and the big prize comes at a terrible cost.

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from World War I and comes into the employ of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy cattle farmer and respected man about town. Almost immediately, Hale begins manipulating his willing but slow-witted nephew into his plans. What if, he suggests, you were to fall in love with an Osage woman? Well, you’d have a finger in the oil, wouldn't you? And what if, he expands, something should happen to her? Well, if all the loose ends had been properly tied, the headrights would transfer to you, wouldn’t they?

What follows is a slow-burning, frequently bloody and often cruel long-game heist. Ernest courts a well-heeled Osage townswoman, Mollie Burkhart (an incredibly versatile and deep performance from Lily Gladstone), eventually marrying her. At the same time, his uncle is whispering in his ear about how to reduce competition on what could be his claim, pulling in others to commit murder for him, or make certain things in their way disappear.

That it clocks in at just under three-and-a-half hours without losing a bit of its increasing pressure and tension is testament to Scorsese’s power. The moments of vast, deafening silence as Mollie and Ernest’s marriage begins to hit the rocks (if you liked DiCaprio’s ‘deep-in-thought-but-still-confused’ face from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, you’ve lucked out) are just as dramatic and vital as the heart-racing scenes of explosion and death. The bits that can make you laugh, meanwhile, come from being able to capture the natural and every day as well as it does the important and intense.

When it comes to the latter, it’s often carried out in classic Scorsese manner – casually walking up and putting a pistol to someone’s head without ceremony; an uncomfortably normal-paced stabbing down an alley in the middle of the day; people found in cars abandoned miles from home with no witnesses. What they do to Mollie is truly awful in its drawn-out suffering.

Again, this being Scorsese, it is beautifully shot and stylishly realised. The cars, clothes and kitsch all perfectly capture 1920s Americana, while an appearance by Jack White in the closing minutes as a pomade-slick radio broadcaster (not to mention a closing speech from the director himself) is devilishly cool. But there’s an equal wealth of darkness and dignity as well. The plight of the Osage as their people are persecuted and killed unambiguously shows them as victims of terrible wrongdoing, as does the almost resigned sense that not even money can save them from being on the back foot in this America. Never, though, does it feel exploitative or patronising. Nor does its message ever feel like it is hectoring the audience.

The performances are incredible. De Niro is a bastard, avaricious in the extreme and callous to the core, possessed of the same greasy, unpleasant alligator charm as Donald Trump, and just as dislikeable. He shrugs off the risk of getting caught killing Indians, noting that the police would probably be more interested if he’d killed a dog. Di Caprio, meanwhile, manages to balance perfectly between a slightly dense go-getter with dollar signs in his eyes, to being consumed as his uncle’s nephew. As for Lily Gladstone, she manages to outshine both – particularly her heartbreak, anger and shock when she realises what her husband has been doing to her.

With such a mixture of talent and tale being steered by a man who has made comfortably some of the best films of all time – and has done so across more than 50 years – Killers Of The Flower Moon was always going to be good. In the event, it’s a staggeringly realised and expertly told story that eats up every minute of its mammoth run-time, and makes its point with subtlety, grace and intelligence.

Verdict: 5/5

Killers Of The Flower Moon is released on October 20 via Apple

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