Although primarily associated with the gangster film genre, Martin Scorsese’s filmography is chock full of a wide variety of styles and film categories. If a common theme could be applied to his body of work, it would be the meteoric rise and subsequent fall of his imperfect protagonists. Think prize fighter Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” or businessman Jordan Belfort in “Wolf of Wall Street.” Or, yes, any of a number of gangster characters.
It is this common thread that accentuates Scorsese’s latest epic – the three-and-a-half-hour epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which Scorsese and Eric Roth have adapted from David Grann’s book of the same name. “Killers of the Flower Moon” takes us through the journey of a series of deaths of Osage natives during the oil boom of the 1920s.
When oil is discovered on the Osage Reservation during World War I, the Osage become the wealthiest people in America. Unfortunately, the terms of the reservation require that white “guardians” manage their income. This provision invariably leads to the exploitation of the Osage at the hands of the greedy Americans. Specifically, a bevy of Osage mysteriously die – some via gunshot, but others through disease and physical ailments.
As usual, Scorsese guides us through this adventure through a personal story – this time, the tale of Bill Hale, known as “King Hale” to the Osage, and even to his own family members. Played by Scorsese favorite Robert DeNiro, Hale is a friend to the Osage; he’s even fluent in their native tongue. Returning from WWI is Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, played by another Scorsese regular, Leonardo DiCaprio. Ironically, this is the first time Scorsese has made a picture with both DeNiro and DiCaprio together.
While the pair of New Yorkers handle the Southern Midwest accents with aplomb, Ernest is not a particularly smart character, and he latches onto King Hale as his guide through the ever-changing world in which his family and the Osage now live. It’s unusual to see DiCaprio play a simple-minded character, and he succeeds admirably, save for the constant scowl he displays throughout the film, which only serves to make him appear constipated.
As might be expected, King Hale turns out to be the brains behind the operation to eliminate the Osage. This becomes apparent when he practically serves as matchmaker to Ernest – pairing her with an attractive young Osage named Mollie. She’s played by Lily Gladstone, who was so wonderful in 2016’s “Certain Women,” an independent film seen by almost no one. Mollie and Ernest have a nice marriage and life together, although she suffers from diabetes – a usually fatal disease in the 1920s.
Hale uses Mollie’s insulin injections to hasten her demise. Her other family members are eliminated via gunshot, bomb blast, and so forth. It’s not a pretty picture, although Hale maintains his friendship with the Osage. Their trust in him is so strong they view him as their liaison with the white man’s world. Although we see Hale order, plan, and carry out various deaths, the Osage don’t have a clue – at least at first.
Eventually, Mollie goes to Washington to plead help from none other than President Calvin Coolidge. A Bureau of Investigation agent (played by Jesse Plemons) is sent to the reservation to solve the saga of the mysterious deaths. Eventually, Ernest is pressured into turning states evidence against Hale in a courtroom-drama finale featuring John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser as the competing attorneys.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a gargantuan, sweeping epic by a director who specializes in gargantuan, sweeping epics. With apologies to “The Irishman,” this is his best film since 2013’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” and probably one of his ten best (although that’s a tough call, given his body of work).
Much has been made of the film’s long run time, and the paradox is that “Killers of the Flower Moon” moves along at a pretty quick clip – so much so that we don’t really have a chance to get to know most of the Osage who are killed during the film’s middle third. And that’s where I have the most difficulty with this picture. A lot of the middle hour could be trimmed by simply excluding several of the Osage deaths. Yes, it’s important we are made aware of these deaths, but certainly some could have been mentioned in passing (i.e. via the dialogue) rather than given 10-15 minutes of screen time.
With that one minor complaint, I can safely say “Killers of the Flower Moon” takes its place as one of this year’s crowning achievements in filmmaking. At an age (80) when most directors have retired, Scorsese continues to regularly churn out breathtaking work. Had this been his first effort, he would surely be hailed as the greatest new director in a generation. But for Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is bound to be regarded as both a great work of art and exactly what we expect from one of our greatest living directors.