Scorsese Scores Again With Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) A-

The best thing you can say about director Martin Scorsese’s epic 206-minute-long “Killers of the Flower Moon” is that it is always watchable, never dull, and not overlong. At once a revisionist Western and a crime drama, it delves into another shameful and little-known episode in our country’s history: the murders in the Osage Indian Reservation in northern Oklahoma from the early to the late nineteen twenties.

Written by Scorsese and Eric Roth from the novel by David Grann, the story begins in the late nineteenth century when massive quantities of oil were discovered on the lands of the Osage Nation. Like all Native American tribes, their history was littered with broken promises by the American Government. Forcibly removed from their native lands in Kansas and Missouri, they eventually ended up in the most inhospitable part of the state that, in another era, would be glorified by Rogers and Hammerstein. The Osage Nation, however, was wiser than most. On arrival, they purchased this unpleasant land from the US Government. So, when oil was discovered, it made them the wealthiest people per capita on Earth!

Killers of the Flower Moon

Not long after the oil discovery, William King Hale (Robert De Niro in the role of a lifetime and loving every minute) settled in the area’s primary city, Fairfax. Pretending to be a friend of the Osage, he was their deadly enemy. His goal was to take over their land stealthily. The only way to accomplish this was to arrange for his friends and family to marry into the community and then kill the Native American spouse (immediately with guns and explosives or slowly with poison). Hale and his entourage would then inherit the land.

It is into this cauldron of ethnic cleansing that Hale’s nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in 1917, fresh from the War in Europe. Hale immediately gives Burkhart the questionnaire on whether he:

  • Like girls
  • Likes “red” girls
  • He kept his dick covered while he was in France

When Burkhart passes with flying colors, Hale pairs him off with Mollie Kyle (an excellent Lilly Gladstone), who comes from one of the wealthiest families in the area. We know by this point of the story that Hale has arranged for the murder of Molly’s mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal), by poison – they called it the “wasting illness” – her sister Minnie (Jillian Dion) by poison, her sister Rita (JaNae Collins) and her husband Bill (Jason Isbell) by blowing up their house, and her sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) by gunshot. It turns out that Molly has diabetes, and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s now 1921, and the newly discovered miracle drug Insulin is arriving in Fairfax from the laboratory of Nobel Prize winners Banting and Best in Toronto. It’s the perfect opportunity for Hale to oversee the addition of a bit of poison to Molly’s Insulin courtesy of the doctor brothers David and James Shoun (Steve Routman and Steve Witting), who he has in his pocket, and Ernest, who administers the injection to Molly.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese directs these multiple storylines with great flair; from the broad vistas captured magnificently by his now-regular cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto – there is a stunning shot of the purple young buds of May in their prime before they are crowded out by more extensive and taller plants, which alludes to the film’s title: May, in the Osage calendar, is known as the “Killer of the Flower Moon” and it was in May that Molly’s sister Anna was killed – to the most minute-period detail in costume and production design. The movie reminded me of George Steven’s masterpiece “Giant” (1956), perfectly blending the great and the small.

The only major problem I had was with DiCaprio. The fact that at 48, he is almost three decades too old for the part is not the primary problem here. The problem is that we never get a hold of his character and his character’s motivations. It is clear from the beginning that Molly loves Ernest. As the movie progresses, we feel she has a clue he is poisoning her, and she loves him too much to confront him. But what about him? Does he love her? Or is he his uncle’s lackey? You are never quite sure. Granted, his role as written is almost impossible to interpret with certainty. However, the resulting uncertainty drags the movie down. Indeed, it went from what could have been a masterpiece to the merely great!

Killers of the Flower Moon

Eventually, several years down the line – thanks to a visit to DC by Molly herself, when she was well enough, and the murder of her sister Anna by gunshot – a bunch of FBI guys, headed by the always reliable Jesse Plemons, arrive. Both Hale and Burkhart get jail time, though, of course, far less than they deserve. As for Molly, she divorced Burkhart and died in 1937, at age 50, from complications of diabetes. In her small-town obituary, there was no mention of the murders.

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