Across three and a half hours, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” recounts the wealth that oil had brought to the Osage community, the white offcomers that suffused and the string of Osage serial killings that followed. The film towers and harrows, depicting the unadulterated exploitation that forged 20th-century America and continued the country’s vulturous relationship with its native people. The true crime epic is backed by Apple TV and releases in theaters on October 20th.
Central to these events is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a bumbling war veteran who returns to Fairfax, Oklahoma to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), aptly called “King.” Chance introduces Ernest to Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a full-blooded Osage who rounds out the trio of key characters. Hale sees this liaison as a way to gumshoe deeper into the Osage pockets, but Ernest is quick to fall for and wed her, complicating the linchpin’s plans. Ernest states that the only thing he loves as much as money is his wife, and, as the film ensues, we see this assertion being continuously tested and the affliction that it brings him.
Because of how strongly Ernest’s contradicting loyalties drive the story, the film’s crests are undeniably spent with the three leads. Anytime Ernest and Mollie share the frame, their exchange — or even lack of one — demands our attention. This is largely due to the caliber of DiCaprio and Gladstone’s performances, with the script being quite leveled more often than not. Where DiCaprio pretzels his face and waffles, Gladstone meets him with reserved modesty, her gaze already saying so much.
Externally, “Killers of the Flower Moon” plays out as a crime procedural. The rhythm that Scorsese used to punctuate his crime masterworks “Goodfellas” and “Casino” is refitted into something cold and blunt. The very nature of these crimes is unique and there is an intimacy to them. Many of these white men are married to Osage women, live next to Osage or even find companionship with each other as we see in one instance. Yet, this amity only makes the atrocities more disturbing. We see how calmly and comfortably these killers are willing to take a life they often know so well for a lump sum or an order from the top.
Speaking of the top, this banality is inhabited specifically well by De Niro, who carries himself with an eerily calm poise. The criminal orchestrater is so deeply entrenched in the Osage community and versed in their culture and language, that it becomes nauseating how he weaponizes this knowledge to further his already monied estate. As Scorsese breaks down the mechanisms behind his crimes — which he does unsurprisingly well — it is revealed that Hale has everyone from the town sheriff to the blue-collar worker under his thumb and that this isn’t just the work of one man.
The absence of state justice or public concern allows these serial killings to run rampant, that is, until the Bureau of Investigation and agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) step in. The clarity of the Bureau’s operation is not always defined or fastened but does provide the tail end of the film with an additional vantage point.
Stylistically, the film is handsomely made. Interiors are given an oppressive dread, where darkness drapes the margins. Unlike these interiors which are captured gorgeously, the exteriors are a mixed bag. The frequent usage of shallow focus makes one itch for a panorama or for the camera to fully capture the teeming inner city. The beautiful prairies and sundowns play into the film’s title: an Eden ravaged and pillaged. The scarce utilization of these landscapes does leave an unfulfilled feeling.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is bookmarked by an unconventional epilogue, and though it initially seems quite jarring, it’s because the coda makes way for Scorsese’s stark statement. It’s one that speaks on the essence of storytelling and the burial and failure of history. With the lacing of the Ku Klux Klan and Tulsa race riots in the story, Scorsese makes it clear that what we have just witnessed is only one chapter in America’s history of persecution and injustice.
Verdict: “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an engrossing and affecting saga, featuring three singular performances.