Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Killers of the Flower Moon

Josh Reviews Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon is the latest film from director Martin Scorsese.  It’s a towering piece of work, rich and devastating.  The film was adapted by Mr. Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth (The Insider, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dune) from the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.  The film unfolds over two decades, from 1919 into the 1930’s, and depicts the “reign of terror” of murders of Osage Native Americans in Osage County, Oklahoma (in which sixty or more Osage were killed between 1910 and 1930), as white men sought to control the fortune in oil to be found on their lands.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, who returns from WWI to work for his uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro).  Hale is a wealthy cattle rancher who is a friend to the local Osage people.  At least, that’s what he appears to be on the surface.  The reality is that he is scheming to ensure their wealth flows into his family, by any means necessary.  As the film opens, Hale suggests that Earnest woo and marry a local Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone).  Things quickly build to a variety of murders as one by one Hale and Ernest conspire to knock off Mollie’s sisters.

In his eighties, Martin Scorsese continues to be an absolute powerhouse of a director.  Killers of the Flower Moon is epic in scale and scope, taking place over many years and featuring many characters.  And yet, Mr. Scorsese’s talented hands on the reins keep the storytelling clear and powerful.  I had no trouble following the various plots and characters as they dipped in and out of the narrative.  The film looks gorgeous; Mr. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto do an incredible job capturing the gorgeous Oklahoma landscapes (the film was apparently shot around many of the locations where these events actually took place) and recreating the look and feel of the film’s early 1900’s setting.  More importantly, Mr. Scorsese keeps his focus squarely rooted on the characters.  In contrast to, say, Napoleon (which I just saw last week — another lengthy, epic film taking place over many years and featuring many characters), I never had any trouble following the story or keeping track of who was who… and in contrast to, say, Rebel Moon (which I watched the day before seeing this film, and which I’ll be reviewing here soon) I was always deeply hooked into the drama and emotions of the characters at the center of the story.

The film is very long, clocking in at almost three and a half hours.  This is, frankly, too long for a movie to be.  While I’d have preferred to have seen a new Martin Scorsese picture in the theatres, on the big screen, I’m glad I watched this at home so I could take breaks and stretch my legs.  Mr. Scorsese seems to like an epic-in-length film (his recent film The Irishman was also around this length).  On the one hand, Mr. Scorsese kept me riveted to the story throughout the film, despite it’s very long run time.  Nothing in the film felt flabby or unnecessary.  On the other hand, I am sure there are cuts that could have been made to get this film in at under three hours, which might have made it a stronger film (and one I’d be more eager to revisit).  But who am I to question Martin Scorsese — the man has earned the right to make his movies however long he wants.  It’s awesome that Apple supported him in this — bravo to them!

The cast is incredible — this film is packed with home-run performances.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese have now worked together so many times, and each new time they collaborate they create something amazing.  Mr. DiCaprio is fantastic here.  His face must have hurt from scowling so hard for the many months of filming this.  Mr. DiCaprio tries to bury his movie-star charisma and handsomeness to depict Ernest, who is a dumb lug who allows his greed to drive him to heinous acts.  Ernest doesn’t have much to say, but Mr. DiCaprio is endlessly compelling as we watch this small little man commit horror after horror.

Speaking of Martin Scorsese’s frequent collaborators, it is of course a thrill to once again get to watch Robert De Niro act in a Martin Scorsese film.  Mr. De Niro is incredible in this film — this is the best performance he’s delivered in years.  He’s so alive and compelling as “King” Hale — a slick, smooth-talking oil salesman who hides a black, greedy heart underneath.  It’s amazing watching De Niro as Hale bend others to his will.  His eyes are alive with malice.  Mr. De Niro is a delight every moment he’s on screen.  Hale might be at the top of the heap of the many despicable scum-bags Mr. De Niro has depicted on screen over the years.

Lily Gladstone is an extraordinary revelation as Mollie.  I loved her depiction of this sharp, strong, quiet woman.  Mollie is very reserved and soft-spoken.  Like Ernest, she’s not one to deliver a flowery monologue.  So much of Ms. Gladstone’s performance is conveyed through her face, and her eyes.  She is marvelous.

If the film has one weakness, it’s that Ms. Gladstone’s character is not enough of a presence in the final hour or so of the film.  I think the film spends too much time on the white men, Ernest and Hale, as opposed to on Mollie.  It’s a problem for me, for example, that we spend more time seeing Ernest’s reaction to the death of their child than Mollie’s.  I wish they’d more strongly centered Mollie, and her feelings and journey, in that final hour.

There’s a deep bench of talented performers who fill out the rest of the cast.  Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad, Black Mass, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) is terrific as the Bureau of Investigations officer tasked with investigating the Osage murders.  (It’s fun to see Mr. Plemons playing a good guy for a change!)  Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow are both a delight when they pop up, late in the film, as lawyers for the defense and prosecution, respectively.  I have nothing but praise for: Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother Lizzie; Care Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, and Jillian Dion as Mollie’ sisters Anna, Reta, and Minnie; Scott Shepherd (Bridge of Spies, Dark Phoenix, El Camino) as Ernest’s brother Byron; Jason Isbell as Minnie’s husband (who later marries her sister Reta); William Belleau as Mollie’s first husband Henry Roan; Tommy Schultz as Blackie Thompson; Steve Witting and Steve Routman as Dr. James & David Shoun; Ty Mitchell as John Ramsey; and so many more!!!

I want to make note of the film’s terrific score, by the late Robbie Robertson (who passed away this past August).  It’s a beautiful score that forms a subtle, percussive under-beat for many of the film’s most crucial scenes.  I loved it.  (Click here or here to learn more.)

The murders of the Osage is an awful true story; a dark chapter in the horrific novel of how the Native Americans have been mistreated over the decades and centuries.  This true story can be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s an important story to be told.  I applaud Mr. Scorsese and his team of collaborators for so skillfully bringing this story to life.

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