The Plot: Oklahoma, the 1920s. The native Osage tribe were given bad land to live on, but it turned out to have a silver lining. There was oil underneath, leading them to become the richest nation per capita on the planet. Soon enough, white people also settled there in the hope of sharing in that wealth. Former soldier Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in Oklahoma to work with his uncle William (Robert De Niro), a respected landowner who is not above getting his hands dirty. He encourages Ernest to woo Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and marry into her tribe. At the same time, a series of Osage murders happens in an apparent power struggle to regain the land. After being ignored by the local police, Mollie then brings in FBI Agent White (Jesse Plemons) to investigate…
The Verdict: There’s a trend going around at the moment among filmmakers in their elder years, in an attempt to pre-empt the knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door. Michael Caine recently said that he had delivered his last performance. Ken Loach also delivered his final film recently, while Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen are currently working away on theirs. If so, 80-year-old Martin Scorsese appears not to have got that memo or possibly dismissed it as being premature for him. His latest film Killers Of The Flower Moon is still the work of a vibrant master director who enjoys storytelling and engaging an audience that has been with him for every step of the way for over half a century. There’s still the sense that he has many more stories to tell and keep the inevitable at bay in the meantime.
It’s based on actual events known as the Reign Of Terror, a series of overtly-pronounced murders which occurred among the Oklahoma-based Osage tribe in the 1920s. Adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth from the book of the same name by David Grann, it’s an expansive story that takes in multiple characters and many years as an insidious poison infiltrates the tribe and proceeds to enact death by a thousand cuts. Where there’s money there’s jealousy, then ambition, then power, then conspiracy and murder. It’s a richly-layered story to begin with, which is why Scorsese takes his careful time to establish the players in this crime saga. Ernest may initially seem like a decent chap as he sweet-talks the rich Mollie into marrying him and becomes part of her tribe. However, he’s also under the influence of his wily uncle William and both of them have ways of bending the law before eventually going further into breaking it. Not that the local police even notice of course.
At the heart of this is Mollie herself, brilliantly played by Lily Gladstone as a smart and cautious woman who knows that Ernest loves money but also loves her too. She watches in horror as danger creeps ever closer to her and her kin, but is not powerless to stop it. It’s a smart piece of casting from Scorsese which like another operatic crime saga, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, overturns what might ostensibly be a male-dominated story into a film with a strong female voice at its core. Scorsese spent several hours with Chief Standing Bear to convince the Osage Nation to assist with filming. That effort undoubtedly helps lend authenticity to the story and Scorsese is respectful of their contribution by not painting them as either saints or sinners, but a bit of both like everyone else. The question is one of degree of course. Ernest and William tip very much into the sinner category, but this is done in a subtle way that suggests opportunism and good, old-fashioned American capitalism rather than outright villainy.
Although this is the fourth collaboration between DiCaprio and De Niro, this is the first time that the muses have worked for Scorsese in the same film. They both deliver very fine performances which dig deeper into those motivations. Watch how their performances modulate as their own nooses start to tighten around their necks. Scorsese luxuriates in the lengthy running time, but unlike his previous film The Irishman it’s a more involving story that rewards patience tenfold. Maybe it isn’t long enough. There could be a 10-part limited series here, but the film works on its own terms and uses the cinematic structure to its own advantage too. There are many treasures to be found here, including an imaginatively-constructed coda from a vintage piece of Americana which leaves the last word to the director himself. Killers Of The Flower Moon is masterful, immersive filmmaking from a director who shows no signs of slowing down. As true crime sagas go, this one is a steal. Keep ’em coming Marty.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Killers Of The Flower Moon
Killers Of The Flower Moon (USA / 15A / 206 mins)
In short: Masterful
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, Brendan Fraser.