- Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival
At the beginning of The Irishman (2019), which was the last time we had a Martin Scorsese epic onto which to project all our Most Important Thoughts About America and Cinema and What The Hell We’re Going To Do When Martin Scorsese Stops Making Movies, we were in a hallway and a doo-wop song was playing. Cradled in the arms of a tracking shot so distinctive he could sign cheques with it, there was, for many of us devotees, an immediate relaxation into bliss, into the certainty that wherever we were about to go, Papa Scorsese would bring us home.
At the beginning of Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the superb true-crime novel by David Grann, we are on Osage land in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma where a mourning ritual is being performed. No vintage pop plays, no kinetic camera glides and there is no equivalently instant sense of filmmaking familiarity. It does come, but only after an uncharacteristically erratic first hour or so, during which – as we retroactively understand – Scorsese, along with co-screenwriter Eric Roth, is dealing out the massive deck from which he will then select the hand he’s eventually going to play: one full of aces, knaves, jokers and a brilliant, grave Queen of Hearts. To watch Killers of the Flower Moon is to watch a movie become a film by Martin Scorsese.
The long opening act requires patience, so prepare yourself for a cavalcade of themes and characters to be introduced, only to be immediately assassinated. The oil discovered in the region makes the Osage people, by the early 1920s, the per-capita richest social group in the world, their opulent motor cars driven by white chauffeurs.
It’s an inversion of the standard social order that newsreels report with amusement edged with racist resentment and of course, the wealth attracts all manner of miscreant to the area’s boomtowns. But alongside the obviously venal element, the bank robbers and gamblers, stick-up men and moonshine peddlers, a subtler type of criminal also thrives: the ostensibly respectable white man who gains access to the Osage fortunes through land deals, insurance scams, arcane ‘sponsorships’ (many Osage were considered ‘incompetent’ to handle their own finances without an appointed white guardian). And sometimes, by marrying them.
Meet William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro), local bigwig and duplicitously vocal ‘friend’ to the Osage, and his feckless nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), newly returned home to Fairfax, Oklahoma. During their many chinwags (both men do a lot of chin-acting) Hale manipulates Ernest into a marriage to Osage woman Molly Kyle (an outstanding Lily Gladstone). But we have already heard, in Gladstone’s clear, low voiceover, brusque accounts of the ‘uninvestigated’ deaths of dozens of her tribespeople. Then her flamboyant sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) is found shot to death in a ravine, her mother dies, and when her other sister Rita (Janae Collins) is killed too, Molly and her children by Ernest become sole heirs to the family’s wealth. Which is, uncoincidentally, when Molly’s diabetes symptoms start to worsen.
It is Scorsese’s riskiest move that he reveals the extent of Hale and Ernest’s involvement in the Osage murders (including those of certain detectives as well as many of the middle-men who carry out the hits) so early on, where the book was a sprawling whodunnit. It’s a gambit that gives us a lot more De Niro and DiCaprio interplay, including a bizarre scene with Ernest on the business end of a paddling administered by Hale, that can edge a little close to lovable-rapscallion territory.
It also leaves Gladstone’s Molly, the film’s most interesting, intelligent character and its steadfast, sorrowful moral core, on the sidelines, particularly in the vast midsection that she mostly spends languishing in her sickbed. And it delays the arrival of Tom White (Jesse Plemons, good but underused) the agent with the fledgling FBI who will eventually, after a hundred dead ends and the assemblage of a team of undercover operatives that gave the book some of its most “Untouchables”-esque moments, bring some form of justice to bear.
The focus-shift is understandable, but in avoiding the obvious pitfalls of a white-saviour narrative, Scorsese delivers a white-devil one instead, which is plenty of gleeful, violent fun but mutes down the Osage presence, their rage and grief and horror, in a very similar way.
But when Scorsese finds the reins of the story he really wants to tell leaping into his hands, all qualms are overcome. It becomes a colossal tale of grubby hypocrisy in the pursuit of the foundational American virtues of wealth and power, once again shaped by the grotesquely disproportionate egos of petty men. De Niro’s Hale makes for an affably sinister archvillain, with Di Caprio’s Ernest his fascinating, fawning patsy – a character designed to contradict Scott Fitzgerald’s famous claim that to hold two opposing ideas at once and still function is the sign of a first-rate intelligence. Ernest – who can earnestly love his wife while earnestly tainting her insulin – is a monumental fool and his eventual fate is loaded with perfectly Scorsesian irony.
In its gripping, turbulent, breathless final third – including a witty, touching epilogue – Killers of the Flower Moon becomes more than a revisionist western, more than a poisonous love story and more even than a classic gangster movie. It becomes a Martin Scorsese film, and there can be no higher praise.