SPOILER ALERT: Some commenters have mentioned spoilers. Please note that nothing revealed in the review isn’t revealed within the first few minutes of the movie, or in Martin Scorsese’s interviews on the movie. If you want to stay completely spoiler free, suffice to say this movie is absolutely terrific and comes with our highest recommendation.
PLOT: In the mid-20s, members of the Osage Native American Tribe, who control the old rights to deposits found under their land, begin dying at an alarming rate. One Osage member, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), begs the government for help, leading to intervention by the agency that would soon become the FBI, only to discover that the perpetrators are closer to her than she could have ever fathomed.
REVIEW: Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, despite not having even opened in theaters yet, has probably already been written about more than any other movie this year outside of the Barbenheimer phenomenon. One can understand why, as it’s the work of perhaps the greatest living director Martin Scorsese, and is the first movie the director’s made that brings together his two favorite leading men, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro (although the two worked together before on This Boy’s Life).
It’s also noteworthy because Scorsese has been uncommonly open about how his conception of the film changed after consulting with the Osage Nation, which led to a shift in how the story would be framed. Initially, Leonardo DiCaprio was set to play Tom White, the agent who worked for the older incarnation of the FBI and investigated the case, only for the actor to eventually opt to play Ernest Burkhart, one of the murderers. As such, the movie became much more about the Osage Nation and the killers rather than the investigation itself.
As such, Killers of the Flower Moon emerges as one of the most complex and ultimately disturbing true crime tales of our time, with DiCaprio’s Burkhart being perhaps the most complex character he’s ever played. When the movie opens, he’s returning from service in WWI, where he was a cook, and eager to get into the good graces of his wealthy uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), a political boss of Osage County. As per his uncle’s wishes, he becomes close with Mollie Burkhart, whose family owns the rights to a significant portion of the oil reserve under the territory held by her tribe.
On paper, Burkhart sounds like a murderous opportunist, which he was. But, he was also a man of contradictions, who actually loved Mollie and was loved back, even though at one point he was poisoning her on his uncle’s orders in an effort to inherit her land. How do you reconcile his loving Mollie and his trying to do away with her? Perhaps that’s the most disturbing aspect of this story, with Burkhart and Hale dehumanizing the Osage people to the point that they could thoroughly compartmentalize the fact that they were murderers, Neither of them considered themselves monsters, even though they certainly were, but such is the banality of evil.
DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as the none-too-bright but occasionally charming Burkhart, while De Niro also tries to play Hale in a way that doesn’t turn him into a caricature. Scorsese and his writer, Eric Roth, working from David Grann’s excellent non-fiction book, humanizes them, making this all the more compelling and disturbing were they portrayed in a more conventional way.
De Niro and DiCaprio have usually been kept separate by Scorsese, with him perhaps waiting to capitalize on the cachet of bringing them together for the right project. Killers of the Flower Moon was the perfect opportunity, with their scenes having an incredible charge to them. As you watch this, you never forget that you’re watching two of the greatest actors of all time play off each other.
Lily Gladstone, as Mollie, is just as good as DiCaprio and De Niro, with her tender and vulnerable as the trusting but sharp-witted Osage woman. While she’s wealthy, she also has to get financial approval from a paternalistic bank president (who’s also shown to be head of the local KKK chapter) to use the money that’s hers, as she’s listed as “incompetent” despite being anything but. You get why Mollie could be charmed by Burkhart, and you buy the notion that despite everything, they do love each other.
The rest of the cast is similar good, with Scorsese mostly staying away from big stars to cast more authentically. While Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow have good little roles, country singers Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell make just as much of an impression. The First Nations roles are brilliantly cast, with Canadian icon Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother opposite younger actors like Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins and Jillian Dion.
Jesse Plemons is also excellent as Tom White, the wily agent who affects a laid-back country boy demeanour but is a sharp, empathetic lawman looking to do what’s right. It’s a smaller role than it would have been had DiCaprio played the role, but Plemons evokes the man’s integrity in a way that hits close to home. Character actor Pat Healy also has a nice little role as one of White’s investigators, who, like his boss, affects a demeanour that allows the conspirators to underestimate his intelligence. The movie also has nice cameos for Jack White and genre icon Larry Fessenden.
As usual, Scorsese’s technical credits are immaculate, with the late Robbie Robertson contributing a subtle, elegiac score. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography demands this be seen in a theater rather than streaming. The 3.5-hour running time is proving controversial, but it should be noted that Scorsese and his ace editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, know precisely how to pace a movie like this. It’s long, but it never drags, and indeed, part of me hopes the streaming version is even more extended as I’d love to dive even deeper into the material.
As usual for Scorsese’s later work, this ends on a bittersweet note, given the material and the fact that we never really know if this will be the movie he decides to end his career on. Scorsese himself appears in the movie’s epilogue, in a moment that could serve as a nice chef’s kiss to the audience – but God willing, he’s got more movies in him; there’s no one out there that could have made Grann’s novel, which was a masterpiece of reporting, into such a beautiful film. It’s undoubtedly one of Scorsese’s genuinely great movies and an event for cinema lovers.