Review – Killers of the Flower Moon

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Overview

Synopsis The Osage Native people find themselves grappling with dozens of brutal murders after oil is discovered on their reservation, which is ultimately revealed to be a massive and unexpected criminal conspiracy.

Length 3 hours, 26 minutes

Release Date October 20, 2023

 

Rating R

Distribution AppleTV+, Paramount Pictures

Directing Martin Scorsese

Writing Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese

Composition Robbie Robertson

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Jack White

The release of a new Martin Scorsese movie is always a major event. The famous director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Kundun, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Silence has more than earned his pedigree as one of the most talented filmmakers alive, and one of the most important from the perspective of film preservation. His name has become a call to action for film preservation and auteur storytelling in a medium all too eager to embrace factory filmmaking and stifling commercialism.

Given the fact that he has had to take his most recent films to Netflix and AppleTV+ to get the sizable budgets he needed, it says something that his most recent film, Killers Of The Flower Moon, has been given such a sizable theatrical release, especially coming in the monumental auteur successes of Oppenheimer and Barbie.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The movie depicts dozens of characters being murdered in various ways, some of them being quite frightening and bloody.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout including f***, s***, h***, d***, and multiple racial slurs.
Drug/Alcohol References: The film is set during prohibition, but characters regularly engage in alcoholic drinking and smoking.
Sexual Content: Two married characters initiate sexual intercourse before the camera cuts away, showing nothing.
Spiritual Content: Most of the characters in the film are either practicing Catholics or worship in the manner of the Osage people’s Pagan religion. The are a few scenes containing omens significant to the Osage people.
Other Negative Content: Significant violence, bigotry, and immorality are depicted, with little of it receiving any justice.
Positive Content: Themes of justice, love, and truth.

Review

Since it was first conceived, Killers of the Flower Moon is a film that has been mired in controversy. Firstly, I drew criticism for its inordinately large price tag of $200 million to film it. Secondly, it drew the ire of Marvel fans who have declared Scorsese a personal enemy for complaining about superhero movies—finding his movies ponderous and boring. Most recently, the film drew ire from Native American activists who questioned whether a White Italian-American filmmaker ought to be telling stories about people of color.

Now that the movie is finally in theaters, it remains to be seen how many of these criticisms truly matter. Despite his advanced age, Martin Scorsese remains one of our most important defenders of the cinematic arts and a voice who is more than capable of producing energetic, ambitious, and meaningful works of storytelling. His newest work is every bit the essential masterpiece he has more than proven himself capable of producing in his sleep—a sprawling epic neo-western pondering the dichotomy of good and evil and the human capacity to indulge both.

The film is based on the real-life events surrounding the Osage murders and based on the book of the same name by journalist David Grann. Set against the 1920s, the displaced Oklahoma-based Osage people are left mourning the death of their culture after forced resettlement. However, the discovery of oil on their government-appointed land turns their people into the richest population per capita in the world for more than a decade.

This amazing coincidence gives the tribe incredible capital and wealth to enjoy but also attracts parasites who are eager to profit off the fountain of money flowing out of the small town of Fairfax, Oklahoma. Among these is a young World War I veteran named Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has been invited by his uncle, William King Burkhart (Robert De Nero), to join him in his efforts to ingratiate himself into the Osage people and slowly gain access to their oil rights—which can only be done if one marries into a prominent local family and happen to inherit oil shares after their spouse’s death.

Most modern retellings of the Osage murders are told from the perspective of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was just rising to prominence at the time that major newspapers began breaking the story that dozens of Osage people were being efficiently murdered by a massive criminal operation for unknown reasons. True crime podcasts tend to play the story in reverse because of the slow revelation of the events—the revelation that beloved town benefactors were guilty and that the biggest breaks came from the guilty consciouses of those who committed the crimes—is more dramatic when told from the perspective of the outsiders unfurling a massive conspiracy happening in plain sight.

Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t do this. We know very early on in the film that William King is a monstrous villain and we see frequent flashbacks of his family committing the horrific murders. Scorsese tells the entire story from the perspective of Ernest, honing in on his bizarre dual perspective as a man lovingly married to an Osage woman who is tasked with murdering her family members.

In some ways, this plays out with a very similar structure to the kind of stories Scorsese has told for decades—crime epics about the appeal of sin and the fall of great criminal masterminds like the Lucchese crime family or Jordan Belfort, where the progressive horror of these events plays out in equal measure to their depravity as the walls close in on them. But the fact that the Osage murders are so immediately tied to the horrific treatment of America’s native people adds a level of pain and immediacy to these events.

Scorsese has cited the horror films of Ari Aster as one of his primary influences on Killers Of The Flower Moon, and it is an apt comparison. The film is operating as a low-key horror film with a consistent droning and unsettling tone, that only intensifies as the cognitive dissonance and immorality of these characters descend further and further. This isn’t a traditional mystery thriller about the slow unfurling of truth, it is about being forced to sit in the same room as the truth and watching it play out.

As one would expect from a Scorsese film, it comes with a heavy-handed helping of Catholic symbolism. The film’s climax plays out with the obvious language and tension of a confessional, with its lead character bearing his soul after everything he has done, but still grappling with shame and dishonesty as he can’t fully bear his soul as to what he has done. Ernest isn’t necessarily the film’s most interesting character, but the torment in his soul between his two loyalties casts him as the heart of the film and its twisted vision of human depravity.

And that is something we get to see in great detail because Scorsese has used every dollar of his $200 million budget to transform the story into a nearly four-hour beast, which depicts all of the major events of the story in horrific sprawling detail as we see innocent people shot, stabbed, eviscerated, and slowly poisoned. This is a movie that truly wants you to absorb every detail of this real-life conspiracy, to know the feeling of being an Osage person cut off from the world and being preyed upon by a monstrous soulless wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It is likely that Killers Of The Flower Moon is going to continue facilitating the same conversations we have been having about Scorsese for the past four years—whether he is a snob who hates contemporary cinema, whether he ought to be telling non-white stories, etc. National Review film critic Armond White has already turned the discourse on its head by declaring it “Scorsese’s first political film,” which is just a wild statement. And yet, the film feels so much deeper and above these questions and squabbles. It is an immense success of filmmaking that takes a very difficult series of characters and finds every ounce of humanity in their stories as it makes us contemplate their sins.

Positives

+ Powerful performances
+ Excellent script
+ Intense unsettling tone
+ Horrifying themes

Negatives

- Excessive length

The Bottom Line

Killers of the Flower Moon is another successful notch in Martin Scorsese's career of creating powerful stories of men corrupted by their dark natures, and does so to reveal many of the tragic hypocrisies that allow such a horrific event to take place.

 

9.3

Tyler Hummel

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to Geeks Under Grace, The Living Church, North American Anglican, Baptist News Global, The Tennessee Register, Angelus News, The Dispatch, Voeglin View, Hollywood in Toto, Law and Liberty, The Federalist, Main Street Nashville, Leaders Media, and the Catholic Herald of Milwaukee.

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