Epic crime stories from Martin Scorsese are nothing new. He’s made his career on depicting criminals, whether it was Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, or The Irishman. Now, Scorsese is doing it again with Killers of the Flower Moon, only this time, he’s not just following his bad guys, but the victims as well. That epic canvas that the master filmmaker is painting on is fueling him, to say the least. Yes, this movie runs nearly three and a half hours long, but it earns that investment. The film is one of 2023’s crowning achievements and another feather in Scorsese’s well-adorned hat.
Killers of the Flower Moon finds unique footing due to its bifurcated focus. While there’s plenty of time spent with the idiots and mastermind of the atrocities being committed throughout, there’s also ample time spent with the natives who are being systematically picked off. Scorsese has you sit with that, over and over again, to the point where you wish someone, literally anyone, would so something. When the law finally does get involved towards the end, it’s a relief, sure, but also enraging that it took that long. By trimming a lot of the procedural aspects of the story, he’s come upon a haunting work that hits as hard as anything he’s done before.
Based on the book by David Grann, this is the story of a series of murders perpetrated upon the Osage tribe in the 1920s. After having been moved to Oklahoma, they discover a deposit of oil under the land. Instantly, they became incredibly wealthy. Initially, the whites in Osage County just muttered and tried to swindle them out of their cash. However, when Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns home from the war, he’s soon let in on a plot by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale is beloved by his neighbors and a pillar of the community, dubbed King, but he’s secretly behind a plan to murder several members of the tribe. Ernest is a simple man, so when King suggest he woo and eventually marry Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) a very wealthy family friend, he’s unaware that he’s just another cog in this murderous wheel.
As more Osage are killed, living members of the tribe begin to raise their voices. While nothing is initially done, when Mollie sees several members of her family killed, her paranoia grows. Eventually, she seeks out help from the government, which leads to Tom White (Jesse Plemons) being sent from what would eventually be known as the F.B.I. to see about the crimes. What happens is of historical record, but as Scorsese depicts it, there’s blood on a lot of hands. To say more about this epic narrative would spoil what the filmmaker has in store for you, but it’s hypnotic, even at this extraordinary length.
The trio of Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone are excellent. Jesse Plemons is good as well, but he doesn’t show up until the third act, with less layers to his character. The main three, however, are doing terrific work. DiCaprio has never been asked to play this kind of a part before, which he clearly relishes. A simple man, there’s conflict in his eyes, especially as he’s driven towards worse and worse deeds. De Niro, on the other hand, gets to be the devil behind it all, putting up a haunting facade of a caring community leader, while in the shadows acting more like a mob boss. De Niro hasn’t been this good in some time. As for Gladstone, she has the hardest job, given that her role is partly observational, but the distrust and fear, as well as the tragedy of her life, are all given full attention. It’s her work that really stays with you when the credits roll. The huge supporting cast includes Tantoo Cardinal, Brendan Fraser, Jason Isbell, John Lithgow, Cara Jade Myers, Scott Shepherd, and many more.
Martin Scorsese, co-writing with Eric Roth in addition to directing, still has his mastery of the craft on full display here. Whether it’s the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the editing from Thelma Schoonmaker, or the score by the late Robbie Robertson, it’s all magnificent. Throw in the costumes by Jacqueline West, as well as the production design by Jack Fisk, and you have technical perfection in evidence. Roth and Scorsese have the director’s trademark violence and gallows humor, but they’re also ruminating on injustice as well. It all builds to the year’s best ending, and in fact, arguably the best ending to any film by the great Scorsese, to date.
In terms of where this ranks among Scorsese’s career, you’ll see an article later in the week on just that, but I’ll say that it’s definitely knocking on the door of his top ten. The way he’s looking back on his older crime stories, as well as doing something new, helps to give this one room to really grow on you. It’s certainly one that has staying power, to say the least.
Oscar-wise, I suspect voters will find Killers of the Flower Moon impossible to resist, at least in terms of nominations. Best Picture, Best Director (for Scorsese), Best Actor (for DiCaprio), Best Actress (for Gladstone), Best Supporting Actor (for De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay are all very much on the table. The film should do very well below the line as well, though some of that remains to be seen. Frankly, there’s a decent chance that this movie leads in terms of Academy Award nominations. Wins? That’s another story, but a double-digit nomination haul is very much in its grasp.
Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese displaying more epic mastery of his art form, that much is clear. He’s painting on one of his biggest canvases, beautifully and horrifically so. Having Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, his two muses, together under his direction? Well, that’s just a bonus. Believe the hype on this one, folks. It’s the real deal. Settle in for a long film, yes, but also settle in for one of the best of the year, bar none.