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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: Scorsese’s masterful indictment of America

| Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Anna Falk | The Observer

Despite being 50 years into his illustrious career, Martin Scorsese has recently entered his imperial phase, directing some of his very best films: 2013’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a debauched, exhilarating time; 2016’s “Silence” — one of my favorites of all time — is a potent meditation on faith and religion; and 2019’s “The Irishman” is a depressing exploration of the sanctity of bromances. It’s awe-inspiring that Scorsese still has so much passion and talent for filmmaking this late in his career. His most recent film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” arrived in theaters this past weekend, and it assuredly continues his hot streak. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a harrowing and powerful epic about America’s history of evil bolstered by superb filmmaking and acting.

The film is based on the true story of the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma. The Osage Nation, a Native American tribe, became incredibly wealthy due to oil being found on their reservations. Their newfound wealth angered and scared the white community in Oklahoma, culminating in Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his uncle William Hale, played by Robert De Niro, killing dozens of Osage members to steal their wealth. At the center of their nefarious scheme is Ernest marrying an Osage woman named Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone. Ernest marries Mollie to claim her family’s inheritance once he and William finish killing them. 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, but it strongly deviates from the source material. The book presents the story as a mystery whodunnit, and it’s mainly told through the perspective of the FBI trying to unravel the conspiracy behind the murders. Conversely, the film reveals the conspiracy from the beginning and primarily focuses on Ernest’s marriage to Mollie. In a sense, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a romance film, but the love presented is incredibly perverted and wicked. But it’s from this different framing that the movie’s brilliance emerges, for Ernest’s relationship with Mollie is a microcosm of America’s history of genocide and oppression.

Ernest, like many other white men in the film, marries an Osage woman like Mollie so that he can inherit her oil money. He uses interracial marriage as a form of neo-colonialism that reclaims dominance and control over the Osage. The worst of America is reflected in Ernest; he’s ignorant, greedy and detached from the acts of violence he commits. He represents more than just the banality of evil; he genuinely believes he loves Mollie while assisting in the murder of her and her family. This cognitive dissonance is emblematic of American society, where people perpetuate hate, bigotry and violence while claiming they’re righteous and loving. With this film, Scorsese is asking the audience, “What good is your love, allyship and prayers if you’re still ultimately enabling the people and institutions that are slaughtering and hurting oppressed communities?” 

The themes and messages of the film are compelling and vital, and they’re supported by equally rich filmmaking and acting. Scorsese’s directing is impeccable; every shot is beautifully framed and constructed. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is excellent and does a great job maintaining pace throughout the long three-and-a-half-hour runtime. The set design and costumes are magnificent, effectively establishing a strong sense of realism and authenticity of the period and setting. Furthermore, the performances are something to behold. Gladstone steals the show and gives an outstanding performance, capturing Mollie’s reserved but powerful nature and hauntingly portraying her psychological and physical suffering. De Niro gives a terrifying performance as William, a demon pretending to be a jolly old man. But though DiCaprio is good, I wish his performance had a little more subtlety, which the very complex, disturbing character of Ernest demanded. Shoutout to Brendan Fraser, who gives a hilarious performance as William’s lawyer. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be so funny, but I enjoyed it. 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is an unnerving, evocative journey through the suffering of the Osage community, where Scorsese explores the evil that shaped this country and the insincerity and cowardice complicit in its spread. It’s another excellent film in Scorsese’s filmography, and I feel so blessed to witness a legend in his prime. Don’t let the long runtime scare you, as this is an essential, riveting film that captures the blood-stained canvas of this country.

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