Killers of the Flower Moon Is an Epic of American Betrayal

Movies Reviews Martin Scorsese
Killers of the Flower Moon Is an Epic of American Betrayal

Martin Scorsese has made a career telling stories that tackle issues of justice, retribution and betrayal. From his overt and poetic crime films, through to his dark comedies, religious parables and character pieces, he has long been drawn to stories where the ambiguities of life collide with the complexities of survival, and where day-to-day choices result in consequences sometimes obvious, and sometimes far more subtle and insidious. 

With Killers of the Flower Moon, he crafts an ambitious historical drama that’s tragedies echo to this day, an observation of a criminal case that transformed the U.S. justice system and, perhaps too subtly, an allusion to the ongoing epidemic of murders targeting Indigenous women—acts of unsolved violence that are left to languish, continuing to afflict both my country of Canada and Scorsese’s native land.

Killers of the Flower Moon is based on David Grann’s nonfiction book, which includes the subtitle “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” The film focuses much of its time on the murders themselves, perpetrated as part of a superficially complex (but at its core avaricious) plan to part a people with their windfall wealth. The displaced Nation of the Osagekicked from their lands back East and forced to travel West, their population decimatedfound themselves at the heart of a financial miracle. By coincidence or providence, the land that they called their own in Oklahoma proved to be a rich oil deposit, and the boon resulted in what was then extraordinary wealth for the Native population—but also enormous opportunities for exploitation and violence from those set to extract the oil. The Osage were granted certain economic benefits, but the very withdrawal of their funds was tightly monitored, a paternalistic system that did little to protect from those nefarious in their intentions.

One way the system could be subverted was through marriage, and it’s here that the film takes its central story, landing somewhere between love and larceny. Lily Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, a beautiful young woman who is helping care for her elderly mother (legendary Cree/Métis actress Tantoo Cardinal). At the behest of his powerful cattle rancher uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), returning soldier Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is encouraged to flame the sparks of affection with Mollie both for personal benefit and to potentially secure a line into this lucre.

Thus sets out a sprawling, epic tale of double cross and malfeasance, told with a deliberate pace and a three-and-a-half-hour runtime that engages throughout. Thelma Schoonmaker manages at all times to propel the story with a gentle push, and there are more than enough jaw-dropping shots lensed by Rodrigo Prieto to sate any cinephile. 

It’s easy to see American touchpoints here, resonating with everything from De Niro’s starrer The Untouchables to a similarly oil-soaked, poetically violent There Will Be Blood. The police procedural element doesn’t come until quite late, and while Jesse Plemons and his posse are wonderfully reserved, there’s a courtroom scene that owes more to Perry Mason or A Few Good Men than anything slightly more subtle. In fact, for all the casting decisions that are almost universally excellent, the inclusion of newly minted Oscar-winner Brendan Fraser is truly egregious, his hamming up in a brief role being an unwelcome tonal shift in what is otherwise a tightly controlled telling.

The other performances are subtle and welcome, from the oleaginous smirk of De Niro as he shakes hands while stabbing those closest to him in the back, to DiCaprio’s bewildered air and underlying cruelty mixed with bouts of kindness. Gladstone’s role is the most thankless, as she spends much of the film either educating her gormless suitor or fighting off illness, yet throughout she presents both an intelligence and vulnerability that never succumbs to cliché. Her powerful presence, sometimes stubborn, sometimes demure, reflects not only the complexity of the social relations of the time, but the very ambivalent true-life relationship between her and the father of her children. It would be easy to dismiss how effective she is at holding that most subtle aspect of the story together, and for those attuned, they will hopefully recognize how powerful many of her seemingly quiet moments truly are.

Narratively there aren’t too many detours, and it does feel occasionally like one is waiting out the inevitable. Still, the journey, while processional, deals with profound and disturbing truths. The unravelling that takes place may be obvious, yet the underlying betrayal resonates throughout. There’s a bravura closing moment that hopefully won’t be spoiled for you, a very welcome flourish that makes clear the director’s intention in escalating what, in so many ways, is a forgotten part of American history. There’s little in the way of catharsis, yet the memories of those who suffered are at least in this medium given their due.

Questions about an Italian American taking on this story of the betrayal of Native Americans are of course valid, but it’s clear that Scorsese and his team have poured attention and resources to allow their Indigenous collaborators to have their voices heard and traditions respected. The benefit of the running time is to allow most of the characters, from bootlegger to tribal elder, to be drawn in three dimensions, rarely succumbing to simplistic or stereotypical presentation. One fascinating conversation revolves around whether to trust the Klan over a corrupt local constabulary, just one of many brutal aspects when navigating a frontier justice system that continued well into the early 20th century.

It’s here that a Federal system makes itself evident, cleaning up the local nonsense and coming forth with professionalism and a level of detachment from local quibbles. It would be foolish to forget all the contradictions that the history of the FBI represents, but its ability to self-aggrandize shouldn’t entirely erase some of the aspects that truly did push the needle of justice forward. Still, the fact that the film waits until the final act to introduce itself to the story is but one of many instances where Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth put the emphasis back on the community. While much of the storyline does focus on the central settler characters, there’s a key scene (teased, uncoincidentally, by the single still that acted as our only image from the film for months) where Mollie teaches Earnest the power of quiet listening, where under the overt flurry of a storm, there’s much to be learned.

Kudos to Robbie Robertson, who never allows the score to descend into stereotype, employing processed guitar sounds and incessant rhythm to drive the score in subtle yet exceptional ways. The period recordings from the likes of Jimmie Rodgers augment the soundscape, and while they’re not nearly as dominant as with other Scorsese crime dramas, the needledrops are as always employed exquisitely.

In his 80th year, Martin Scorsese remains a master of craft and storytelling, and while Killers of the Flower Moon may not rise to the greatest levels of his near-peerless canon, it’s still a more than worthy addition to his filmography. He elicits terrific performances and provides a canvas for a remarkable story. The way he illustrates the ease in which lies are told and promises betrayed is deeply affecting, as is the way in which individual characters are given space to be complex, with flaws and contradictory feelings intact. Long may the master make films of such presence and passion, and if a streamer is willing to give him a royal sum to truly film his vision—one that easily could have been forcibly confined to a far smaller scope and ambition—then long may that continue as well.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Martin Scorsese, Eric Roth
Starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow
Release Date: May 20, 2023 (Cannes)

Jason Gorber is a Toronto based film Critic and Journalist, Editor-in-Chief at That Shelf, the movie critic for CBC’s Metro Morning, and others. He is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and voter for the Critics Choice Awards Association. He also knows for a fact that CASINO is Scorsese’s masterpiece, and has a cat named Zissou.

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