Certain directors and certain films they leave a stamp on will always illicit a very distinct emotion as the credits begin to roll. With Martin Scorsese, the director who’s been a generation-defying storyteller doing primarily good for cinema the best he can, often enough his films will end with either satisfaction or curious/frustrated bewilderment on one’s face. And that’s regardless of how tiring the adventure was against its lofty reward. I can question how effectively his 28th narrative feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, does stick its landing through the rest of its awards season. Part of me still is, with an often-inconsistent approach to pacing both he and co-writer Eric Roth (Dune) are guilty of. There is still a grand epic they proceed to build from its very nexus. One bridging history with the individuals who shaped it, while paying the highest respect to them.
Across a decade-long span (give or take), Scorsese notches his post toward the Osage Nation in the 1920s. As the key figures in Oklahoma’s oil boom, they were the most affluent Native American group, striking many partnerships with white landowners. Among them, is the prolific William King Hale (Robert De Niro), a mostly amiable guy whose sense of greed is passed on, and multiplied to a ferocious degree, to his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Having just returned from the war with an injury to claim, he sees a world having changed by its own profit sharing. Any new concept would catch him off guard, with Hale striving to maintain peace and order as he concocts a precise plan to sweep the rug from below their neighbors.
Striking a hesitant tone, Ernest plays along with his uncle’s idea of coordinating “land rights” to sway in their favor. The trick in his arsenal is to work up the chain, supporting mixed-race relationships while conspiring to murder lesser players in the bloodline, until it’s just the one Ernest is instructed to play nice with. He hits it off quickly with Mollie (Lily Gladstone), the pair truly falling in genuine romance, even as she battles a major battle with diabetes (it runs prudently in her family), and he questions his loyalties, following the dollar more than domestic bliss. All before the circumstances become unignorable as the myriad of deaths pile up, and Ernest seeks to dodge prosecution at the mercy of the then-upstart FBI, led by agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons).
Cordial relationships loom heavily between Scorsese and Roth, forming a dramatized pageant out of their inspiration, a 2017 nonfiction page-turner by David Grann. And when they sour from factual events, the honesty cuts through. No sugarcoating or embellishment, we’re spared that. And with respect to the real-life players embroiled on either side of this deductive character study, the worst criminal acts are kept off-screen. Only the painful after-effects are entrusted to leave a weary chill, and further reinforce the morose avarice these players bury below a charismatic visage. Those touches support a succinct tone when momentary circumstances inadvertently muddle the director’s most developed idea – how the lawful and the materialistic do not, nor should ever mix, but can still manage to cooperate long enough to fulfill acts of cruel, unjust behavior.
The common theme is a given, it’s what makes Scorsese’s work here entertaining amid a firm, wizened history lesson. Much like what Oppenheimer attempted, and outright struggled with. The major difference is that its ducks are in a row and no concept is overlooked or ignored. The tradeoff that some viewers may experience more than others is a near-lack of accessibility. The father of nuclear warfare might’ve been an easier sell than a dramatic study of community outrage. Not having studied Osage County in public school, I couldn’t have been more in the dark. The director jumps through multiple hoops to describe the historical consequences and forge the spirit of his villains on a balanced keel. Unless one’s read the book, we’re all still plunging headfirst into an unwaveringly detailed unknown. I couldn’t ever fault Scorsese for taking his time (a lot of it) to delve in that direction; that still sets him apart as an auteur at such a sustained peak, he never sees reason to restrict his approach. However, it’s not a perfect run, as pacing and tonal hobbles do persist, to where the mind may drift out of focus. Not exactly acceptable when all that Scorsese’s juggling is considered crucial.
Moments pass by where certain interactions get swallowed up in the absorption of postcard-like atmospherics. The sort made to look calm in a wash of wheatgrass blue by way of Rodrigo Prieto’s (Barbie) unchallenged cinematography before editor Thelma Schoonmaker seeks to elevate the auditorium’s blood pressure a couple of hundred notches. They, along with the gentle harmonies of Robbie Robertson’s (in his final project with Scorsese before passing back in August) score do plenty to further drive place, time, and especially mood into convergence. And yet, it was just as easy to come away still forgetting where quieter stretches of simple context present themselves to propel the plot along, most notably in the final hour with all cylinders firing.
And that much can be said especially of its cast; proof that at the bare minimum, those fans of Marty’s angle for character study will eat well with this venture. This is as their jaws drop at both their piercing realism, and later his daredevil idea to slice for the fourth wall jugular. And to dismantle the dramatics he had built over three-plus hours, leaving only the sobering reality. When one forgets how much of a true story all this started as, the director’s craft kicks into an insane degree, to not shy away from the consequences of its brutality. To collaborate so closely with his muses on this idea only furthers its resonance, deepening the sting.
When we see de Niro as a barnstorming puppet master channeling false optimism, we easily feel both the sagacity and the immorality. When witnessing DiCaprio’s lack of control, rationale replaced by reasonable desire – romantic or monetary, there is unstoppable charm and dexterity in his overinvolvement in the murder ring, and to his greater goal of domesticity, a simpler life even as that itch for mischief grows. And when following along with Gladstone’s portrayal of a worn-out, docile, worldly figure plagued by revisionist torment, you can’t look away. Hers is the face of anguish, shared with the numerous. Of frayed trust toward her community, and of solemn indignity toward perpetrators hiding like snakes in the grass. Her performance, deriving from her own genius tact, is a very complete package. In both power and empathy, Gladstone shines in one of the year’s most undeniable performances, cementing her mainstream break. And in turn, assisting Scorsese’s directorial pull at a point where retirement seems inevitable. If he claims this is his last like many said The Irishman might’ve been, it’s a strong capper, but we still wonder what else is left in his tank.
Our respective resolves might be all but drained at the end of Killers of the Flower Moon. It left me exhausted, frustrated by the destructive effect of human greed and recklessness, and a bit annoyed at its disjointedness. Were it to be recut as a limited series broken into distinct segments, that would only partially solve the problem. Even still, through its enthralling eye for illustrating the harshness of cultural reform without being graphic, and a supportive sense of care toward the community it affected most, I was still moved, rattled, and rocked in my chair. Frozen with eyes on the screen, it felt like I was coming down from a blatant sensory high as the modern world returned to purview, with one door left ajar to hopefully revisit in short order. Yes, even with its lengthy investment, I’ll watch this again. Weaknesses aside, this is pure Scorsese; it’s his style and perspective taking hold once more. And now, as we’re confronting this lens to history, who better to serve as a guide? (A-; 4/5)
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters October 20, previews begin 2 PM October 19; rated R for violence, some grisly images and language; 206 minutes.