Any time a film is released that is directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s something any film fan should get excited about, especially because we just don’t know how many more of these films we’ll have to look forward to. He’s one of the few working directors who you can argue has numerous masterpieces on his resume, films that are classics that have stood the test of time and will continue to do so for decades to come. Its why when I hear people scoff at the 3-hour 30 min running time of Killers of the Flower Moon and complain it’s too long, I feel like they are forgetting who they are talking about. If anything, when there is a 3-hour film like Oppenheimer that has grossed over $900 million worldwide, it shows that people will flock to the theaters and sit through an epic film if the film is good. Sure, there is already Oscar buzz around Oppenheimer, but in my eyes the film to beat this year is Killers of the Flower Moon, an epic western, crime saga and romance all wrapped up into one film that has me close to calling it a masterpiece, but I need a couple more viewings before I feel comfortable saying that.
The film introduces us to the Osage nation and them finding wealth with the discovery of oil on their land. The members of the Osage tribe, for their time, were some of the wealthiest people on earth, and we get to see them living their extravagant lives. While this is happening, numerous members of the tribe were found dead, yet no proper investigation was ever made.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to Oklahoma after WW1 to live with and work for his uncle, Bill Hale (Robert DeNiro), though he prefers everyone to call him King. It doesn’t take long to realize that Ernest isn’t that bright, and Hale picks up on this immediately, and we can see early on how he is able to manipulate Ernest. Hale initially sets Ernest up with a job as a cab driver (was this a subtle wink to Taxi Driver? probably not, but in my fantasy world I’d like to believe it was), one of the people Ernest picks up is Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a member of the Osage tribe. It doesn’t take long for Ernest to develop feelings for Mollie, and Hale pushes for Ernest to try to marry her in hopes that the family can inherit some of the oil money. Mollie is of course suspicious and even calls out Ernest by calling him a “coyote”, but still she marries him. As the film plays out, this romance between Ernest and Mollie is crucial, because over the course of the film we do see Ernest take part in some truly awful crimes, but it does seem that his love for Mollie is genuine.
As for Hale, the film takes its time as it slowly exposes just how much of a bad guy he really is. This is one of those villains that you can understand how he can have so many fooled, he seems to be that genuine friend or loved one, but he’s always making moves having others do his dirty work, and it’s not till the blood is shed that you realize how dangerous he is without even pulling the trigger himself. There’s so much going on with Hale in this picture that you could easily add another hour to this film to explore his criminal life. Personally I would love to see more about the bootlegging or some of the insurance schemes he was always caught up in. Sure, I enjoyed DeNiro’s performance in The Irishman, but what he does with this role is nothing short of fantastic, and he shows that after all these years he still has it.
To delve a little deeper, Mollie is in many ways the true heart of this picture. Though she is an Osage woman, she is living in a man’s world, and it’s the white men all around her who are looking to take advantage of her. While she is dealing with the execution of her blood relatives by greedy men, she is dealing with her health, being a diabetic when insulin was being just introduced. When she wants to use her money, she has to get the approval of white men who then decide for her if she should be allowed her money or not. This becomes crucial when she wants to get money to travel to Washington to ask for help to have the crimes in Osage county investigated. Lily Gladstone is fantastic in this role. She does so much with her eyes and subtle expressions. This isn’t a big, overly dramatic performance, but one that is carefully nuanced.
Then we have DiCaprio. You know, the first 2/3 of the film I feel DeNiro and Gladstone really steal the picture, they are just so good in their roles. But then there is a moment in the film, I feel when you see you’ll know what I mean, where we see a change with Ernest and things begin to spiral for him, that DiCaprio just seems to give it his all. In the last 90 minutes we get to see one heck of a performance that at times will provoke some giggles and in other moment is just heartbreaking.
One thing I kind of wish, or have as a “What if” in my head, is how would this film of looked with Robert Richardson as the director of photography. He shot Casino, Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator, and Hugo for Scorsese in the past, and I’d argue he’s one of the best cinematographers in the past 50 years, and it just seems like this would have been in his wheelhouse to do something exceptional, but I’d imagine it would have been different. That being said, Scorsese went with Rodrigo Prieto, who shot The Wolf of Wall Street, the underappreciated Silence, and The Irishman. This is a beautiful film, don’t get me wrong, I just feel there was some missed opportunities to give us a little more grit, and more kinetic energy with some of the action. Maybe I’m just being greedy; hell, they gave me this great film, and I’m just wanting more … A scene that jumps out at me that I thought was beautiful involves a funeral and we see Ernest and Mollie … or the scene where the FBI looks on as Hale’s property is on fire … or a scene where a character botches an execution … There are countless times this film just looks exquisite, and I’d imagine film students will be dissecting this film and many of its sequences in the future.
While at first glance Killers of the Flower Moon may not appear like your typical Scorsese film, in a lot of ways it’s a blend of films throughout his career but also him delving into unexplored territory. The film cost $200 million to make, and this is a big gamble by Apple, who plans on streaming this exclusively after its theatrical run, but you can see every dollar invested up on the screen. Scorsese shows us that he still is a master of his craft and delivered a film that is injected with so much story that to cut it shorter would be a crime against cinema. This is a film I dare someone to point out its flaws, because I’d argue there are none. Sure, it’s long, but this is a movie that deserves your time and attention. This isn’t the movie equivalent of a trip to Burger King that you just throw on to pass time; no, this is a film that is a fine dining experience, where you savor every moment, because what you are being served is a film that was made by a director of the highest caliber who has crafted an experience meant to be seen on the biggest screen at the cinema. This is a film that reminds me why I love cinema and going to the movies. This film took me back 100 years and immersed me into a time and culture that doesn’t exist anymore and showed me how much has changed for better or worse. If other filmmakers cared this much about the films they made, I have to wonder if the industry would be struggling like it has.