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Killers of the Flower Moon: A Bleak Masterwork

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Streaming Service: Apple TV

Release Date: October 2023

Rating: R

After years of waiting, after months of seeing only a single still from production, Martin Scorsese’s latest film Killers of the Flower Moon is finally out in theaters. Was it worth the wait? Of course it was.

As you likely know already, at least if you’ve seen the trailer, the film is about the murder of Osage natives by white people to steal the natives’ money obtained by vast oil reserves discovered on the Osage’s land. Like many of Scorsese’s films, it is an adaptation of a book in this case David Grann’s historical interrogation into the Osage murders of the same name. Grann’s book from my understanding, which I will note that I have not read, contains a central mystery as to who is killing the Osage people, and focuses on the newly formed Bureau of Investigation who sends a posse down to investigate the murders. And the original version of Scorsese’s script was supposedly centered in the same way around the FBI’s men trying to figure out who was killing the natives and bring their killers to justice.

The film does not do this, and it is all the better for it. I have seen many complaints already in the few days since the film has come out, regarding the choice to frame the story around Leonardo Dicaprio’s character, a fairly dim bulb who is drawn into and quickly becomes a very willing pawn in this conspiracy by his uncle, played masterfully by Robert De Niro. Such complaints argue that had the film centered around Mollie, Dicaprio’s wife played by hopefully-Oscar-winning actress Lily Gladstone, the film would have conferred more agency towards the native people it sought to empathize with. In the words of Christopher Cote, an Osage advisor on the film “this is not a film for the Osage people”. I cannot say I disagree with these complaints, though I will still maintain that focusing on Dicaprio’s character was a fully conscious choice that reveals a certain subtext to the film, and a choice that does not harm the film’s message in any way.

Instead of focusing on the FBI men at the forefront of the original book, Scorsese focuses on the criminals committing all this violence. Nothing is kept from the audience, the motivations and the few intricacies of the murderous conspiracy are told to the audience in the first 20 minutes of the film. The who, what, when, where, why, and how are so obvious that they barely need explanation, and when you are provided an explanation, the violence is so careless and simple that you feel sick to your stomach, almost preferring the inference in your head to the stark and unstylized violence the film presents you with. And no one embodies this violence more than De Niro and Dicaprio, with the latter playing what is quite possibly the stupidest protagonist in a Scorsese film, and the former playing the true American Devil, in all its manipulation and avarice. Nothing is off the table when it comes to these two and their greed, leading to some of the most gruesome and quick violence Scorsese has ever shown. No respite is provided, no quick cuts away from the headshot. You are going to sit and watch as these acts happen, you are going to drown in the sick darkness the Osage were put under.

What makes all of this violence even worse is that Dicaprio’s Ernest is married to Lily Gladstone’s Mollie, an Osage woman who is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Gladstone is clearly the emotional heart of the film, providing the audience with someone real to empathize with and relate to while murder after murder occurs, given that the other protagonists either act upset that the murder didn’t go as planned or constantly mug a face that looks more akin to a sad-looking gorilla. The only real emotion in the film is from her and the other Osage people, with Gladstone commanding such presence that you feel her absence, a skill that few actors possess. She is more akin to a horror film protagonist, someone that you wish would not walk into a dark room where the monster is, yet she does because of her love for the monster.

Now we return to the opening complaint: why focus the film around Ernest and not Mollie? After all, it seems like she is the more compelling character, especially from an Osage perspective. That’s the thing, Christopher Cote was one-hundred percent correct in his assertion that the film is not for the Osage people. It’s not. The film is for the rest of America, the America that is complicit in these crimes, and those who view the retelling of these awful stories as entertainment. Scorsese is not above including himself in this group, after all, he is partially known for his wildly entertaining films that focus on the criminals that do nothing but cause pain and mooch off of others like a parasite. But we don’t care about that pain because it’s rarely shown to us, and the violence used to obtain ill-gotten gains is either stylized to be slick and cool, or contrasted with a slick and bright aesthetic if the violence isn’t stylized in this way. Neither of these are present in Killers; the violence is shown in gruesome detail, and is never made to be cool, just cold. Only a flicker of his older style appears near the end, to drill home the idea that Scorsese himself has contributed to this culture of manufacturing entertainment out of heinous crimes, especially given that most of Scorsese’s crime films are adaptations of true crime books, just like Killers of the Flower Moon. The constant photography of the Osage by white people only hammers this point home: photography, and film by extension, immortalizes people, and thus framing is everything. Frame a scumbag as a cool gangster, he is remembered as such for eternity. Only the Osage are shown as having their pictures taken, only they are framed. As eternal victims to the white men, or as defiant warriors? Scorsese seems to be saying both, as shown through Mollie most pointedly, whose stubbornness against her lack of agency does result in plenty of good, but said lack of agency is hard to watch even if it is accurate to historical events. Conversely, the white men doing these crimes are never photographed, never framed in any way that matters. All we see is who they are, no interpretation necessary: stupid greedy scumbags willing to do anything for more money, a far cry from some of Scorsese’s more relatable criminal protagonists. Through this film, Scorsese is excising himself from a culture he has helped to perpetuate, by showing us the naked realities of these brutal stupid crimes borne only out of greed committed by Ernest and De Niro’s King Hale (whose actors of course worked with Scorsese before on his hyperactive ultra-slick crime films).

This film contains sequences that I think number among Scorsese’s best, particularly one involving a fire and the last five minutes. The score from the late Robbie Robertson also is just fantastic in establishing the town’s tempo, and as with all Scorsese movies, every needle drop is perfect. It must be stated that every performance in here is perfectly calibrated to this film, including every newcomer (Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson???) and of course, Lily Gladstone, who turns in a performance so varied and painful that it should be rewarded with every honor we can bestow, which of course means that some lesser performance will likely beat her to the prize. Because this film is on streaming, it may be tempting to save your money and watch it at home. Turn away from this temptation. This film deserves your money and your time, and should be seen on the biggest screen you can find. It is not entertaining per se, even though it has its moments of black comedy, but is such a confident combination of technical skill and emotional weight that you can never look away, no matter how terrible the events become. It takes the appeal of a true crime movie/podcast/radio show and strips it of the pomp and exaggeration inherent to the genre, flooding the audience with the genuine pain and horror that accompanies true crime in reality. Murder and death of innocents should not be contorted and framed into being entertainment, after all.

Killers of the Flower Moon is showing on both Apple TV and in theaters. Go see it in theaters.

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