The heart of “Killers of the Flower Moon” beats loudly thanks to Lily Gladstone. The actress, who grew up on the Blackfeet Nation reservation and received critical acclaim in 2016 for her breakout role in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women,” captures the spotlight in Martin Scorsese’s revisionist Western despite starring opposite the director’s golden boys Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. What began as a story about the formation of the FBI in David Grann’s riveting 2017 book has been transformed into a love story about greed and malfeasance directed at the Osage Nation. It’s a great film from a Master of Cinema but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece.
When watching a film by an auteur I am filled with anticipation while waiting for the opening shot, knowing how much thought must have gone into that first frame. Here, we see a pipe held towards the sky by a tribal elder, a gesture that symbolizes the fading traditions of the past and the beginning of a new era (the white man era) for the Osage people. It concludes with the first of many burials to come, quickly outlined in voiceover narration by Mollie (Gladstone) of the oil-rich Osage Kyle family as she informs us of the scores of murdered members of her tribe, each name and image followed by the words, “No investigation.” How many are we talking about? The final tally reached 60, but who really knows.
Rodrigo Prieto’s striking cinematography captures the Oklahoma landscape, Scorsese opted to shoot on location where the crimes took place after meeting with the Osage elders including Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear. Production designer Jack Fisk does a fantastic job of recreating 1920’s Fairfax, OK with the help of nearby Pawhuska filling in for the small community in the heart of Osage County.
After a scene of oil spewing forth from the land as the Osage dance around the Black Gold, a quick history lesson comes in the form of a black-and-white newsreel showcasing how the Indigenous people struck it rich in Oklahoma on the land the US government thought was worthless. We see footage of the Osage dressed in suits and fancy dresses, driving Roadsters or better yet, being driven by chauffeurs while experiencing the greatest per capita wealth in the world.
Leonardo DiCaprio (marking his sixth collaboration with Scorsese) plays WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart, a simple man, or better yet, simpleton, who returns to Fairfax to live with his uncle William “King” Hale, a wealthy cattle baron played by Robert De Niro (his tenth collaboration with Scorsese). I know what you’re thinking, “This Boy’s Life 2” as in the 1993 film starring both actors, only this time De Niro is the abusive uncle instead of the abusive stepfather. Surprisingly, this is the first time the A-listers have worked together under Scorsese.
As Ernest is driven to his uncle’s home by a member of the Osage tribe, the former soldier asks, “Whose land is this?” upon seeing the countless oil derricks scattered about the prairie. “My land” answers his Osage driver.
The setup comes first. William tells his nephew to call him “King.” He then asks Ernest, “You like women?” to which the wet-behind-the-ears soldier answers, “That’s my weakness.” They laugh and Ernest admits to his love for whiskey and money. King has found his patsy.
King is evil personified as De Niro makes his “Angel Heart” character Louis Cyphre look like a lightweight (and he’s Satan). The 80-year-old actor turns in his best performance in years, maybe decades, reminding us of why he is regarded as one of the greats. King professes his love for the Osage people, treating them with respect and dignity, but what he really values is their money. He is the leader of the pack referenced in the Osage customs book he gave Ernest to study, “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” we hear Ernest say as he reads aloud. We know that De Niro’s character is the mastermind behind the atrocities yet it’s easy to see why the Osage trusted him thanks to the veteran actor’s performance.
David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction novel “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” is a riveting page-turner, a true-crime story told from the viewpoint of former Texas Ranger turned federal agent for the Bureau of Investigation Tom White played by Jesse Plemons (who was terrific in 2021’s “The Power of the Dog”). Scorsese and writer Eric Roth decided to tell the story from a human angle, concentrating on the relationship of the Osage and the white men or “wolves” they put their trust in. But really, it’s a love story between Ernest and Mollie giving Lily Gladstone the chance to take the reins thus becoming the heart of the story.
Ernest begins his relationship with Mollie as her driver. During his reacquaintance with King, he’s told to find an Osage wife, noticing that most of the indigenous women are married to white men. It’s all part of King’s scheme to steal the headrights from the Osage making sure they are transferred to their white counterparts.
Over the course of his employment, Ernest begins to fall in love with Mollie using his charm to win her over. In one scene Mollie murmurs something in Osage to which Ernest replies, “I don’t know what you said, but it must have been Indian for handsome devil” causing her to burst out in laughter as the romance begins to blossom. That scene was adlibbed by DiCaprio, and it works great. However, in several interviews, Scorsese admitted that his “Wolf of Wall Street” leading man drove De Niro nuts by adlibbing many of his scenes, a contrast to De Niro’s method of acting.
Mollie is smart. She knows Ernest is after her money even if we don’t. There are times when we see the goodness in Ernest and hope he becomes the husband, father, and man that he can become under Mollie’s guidance, but the corruption and evil are so prevalent in Fairfax that it’s hard for him to get out from under his uncle’s wing. Or maybe he is just a greedy a-hole like his uncle and older brother Bryan, King’s right-hand man, played by a very good Scott Shepherd who starred with Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s 2020 film “First Cow.”
Scorsese veers the film in different directions going from a love story to his gangster film roots to show how King and Ernest carried out the murders of the wealthy Osage with King being the brains of the operation and Ernest being the person responsible for hiring the muscle to do the jobs. This takes all the mystery out of “Killers” as we know who is responsible, giving the director time to focus more on his characters than the actual storyline, a signature Scorsese trait. But that’s what made Grann’s book so captivating. Plemons’ Tom White comes in way too late in the film (two hours in) when he should be there from the beginning letting the story unfold as the investigation continues. I believe Ernest and Mollie’s story could have been told in contrast to the ongoing investigation while adding tension to the story.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” highlights another dark chapter in America’s history. You walk away from the 3-and-a-half-hour film feeling empathy for the Osage especially Mollie who loses so many members of her family and becomes the film’s main victim. Gladstone, who appeared earlier this year in the under-the-radar indie film “The Unknown Country” (which you should watch) is superb.
Robbie Robertson who we lost in August provides the film’s electrifying score. Just listen to “Osage Oil Boom” which fluctuates from dirty to twangy guitar, as it vibes along at a steady pace. A frequent Scorsese collaborator, the former member of The Band leaves us with one final composition as an example of his musical prowess.
The supporting cast features cameos by John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser as opposing lawyers in the film’s final chapter which transforms “Killers” into a courtroom drama. Pat Healy, Jack White, Barry Corbin, and Pete Yorn make it into the cast. Tantoo Cardinal, one of the most recognized Native actresses (“Dances with Wolves,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Wind River”) delivers another standout performance as Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q.
DiCaprio and De Niro are too old for these roles (almost twice as old as the actual characters) but it’s great seeing them together once again. There are scenes in the film that aren’t crucial to the story which signals a needed edit to shorten the running time. I don’t like throwing the word “masterpiece” around loosely, but I will say “Killers of the Flower Moon” is one of the best films of the year.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters