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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Review: DiCaprio Gives His Best Performance for Scorsese’s Bitterest Crime Epic

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Apple Studios and Paramount Pictures will release the film in theaters on Friday, October 20, with an AppleTV+ streaming release to follow.

Martin Scorsese may like to think of “Killers of the Flower Moon” as the Western that he always wanted to make, but this frequently spectacular American epic about the genocidal conspiracy that was visited upon the Osage Nation during the 1920s is more potent and self-possessed when it sticks a finger in one of the other genres that bubble up to the surface over the course of its three-and-a-half-hour runtime.

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The first and most obvious of those is a gangster drama in the grand tradition of the director’s previous work. Just when it seemed like “The Irishman” might’ve been Scorsese’s final word on his signature genre, they’ve pulled him back in for another movie full of brutal killings, bitter voiceovers, and biting conclusions about the corruptive spirit of American capitalism. “Gimme Shelter” may not have made it into the final cut, but the chugging bass groove of Robbie Robertson’s brilliantly anachronistic score almost leads you to believe that it might.

And yet, the “Reign of Terror” — which came in the wake of an oil discovery that made the members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma the richest people per capita on planet Earth — proves to be an uncomfortably vast backdrop for Scorsese’s  more intimate brand of crime saga. The book from which “Killers of the Flower Moon” has been adapted is a sweeping tale about the end of the Wild West and the birth of the 20th century, as the author David Grann devotes roughly equal time to the modern sociopath who orchestrated the Osage slayings and the old-fashioned cowboy who J. Edgar Hoover dispatched to stop him. Scorsese’s more narrowly focused version takes stock of those tectonic shifts in our nation’s history, but only in passing. Its primary interest is limited to the sinister mastermind and his favorite lapdog, two beady-eyed fucks whose understanding of the new American landscape was limited to the belief that it still belonged to them.

William Hale saw the Osage as mere stewards for the wealth his country had accidentally gifted to its indigenous population in the act of stealing their land. He maintained a holy conviction that America was still a place where certain people could get away with murder committed in the name of white progress, and the most distressing passages of Scorsese’s film make clear why Hale may have continued to believe that even after the Bureau of Investigation began to pursue him. But if Grann’s book was an expansive conspiracy thriller that teased out the facts of the case while always keeping at least one eye fixed on America’s transition from myth to modernity, Eric Roth’s script casually identifies the murderers as soon as it can in order to drill that much deeper into the relationship between them. This “Killers of the Flower Moon” doesn’t ebb and flow so much as it seeps out from the ground and pools in a small handful of different places.

Needless to say, Roth’s approach doesn’t pan out so well for the aforementioned cowboy, as the straight-shooting Tom White is diminished to the point that he would hardly even register in this story if not for the quiet moral strength that Jesse Plemons brings to the role. He’s just a stiff man in a striped suit, as opposed to a living emblem of the faded American West. Ironically, Roth and Scorsese originally envisioned White as the protagonist of this story, only to start over from scratch once they realized that centering law enforcement would pull too much focus away from the Osage themselves, and from the awful toll these events took upon their entire community. Even in the finished version — despite a host of indelible performances from Native American actors like William Belleau and Tantoo Cardinal — the haunting witness they offer to the horror around them is less immediate than the silence that surrounds it.

What Roth’s adaptation does allow is for “Killers of the Flower Moon” to blossom into a compellingly multi-faceted character study about the men behind the massacre. Even more importantly, it invites the most recent of Scorsese’s late-career triumphs to become the most interesting of the many different movies that comprise it: A twisted love story about the marriage between an Osage woman and the white man who — unbeknownst to her — helped murder her entire family so that he could inherit the headrights for their oil fortune.

That sepia-toned saga of slow-poisoned self-denial is sustained by the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s entire career. The former matinee idol has never been shy about playing low-lifes and scum-bums, but his nuanced and uncompromising turn as the cretinous Ernest Burkhart mines new wonders from the actor’s long-standing lack of vanity.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in “Killers of the Flower Moon”screenshot/Apple

“Killers of the Flower Moon” begins with Ernest returning to his hometown of Fairfax, Oklahoma after the end of World War I (where he suffered a “blown up gut” that seems to have limited his ability to do physical labor), and from the moment he arrives at the local train station he finds that the hierarchy of power has changed in his absence. The Osage population is now awash in the lavish wealth they’ve come to enjoy since the American government accidentally relocated them atop a veritable gold mine, while opportunistic whites from near and far are scrambling to get their hands on that money any way they can.

For some men, that means taking photographs or selling cars along the booming main street that Scorsese uses as his film’s most vibrant and transportive backdrop (with some help from legendary production designer Jack Fisk). For other, more conniving types, that means marrying into Osage money, which — due to a flagrantly racist “guardianship” system that declared Native Americans too “incompetent” to handle their own finances — would also grant these gold-digging trophy husbands full control over their wives’ cash.

For his part, the not-so-bright Ernest seems mostly bemused by the whole situation. A New York seven but a Fairfax 12, he saunters around town with the slack-jawed swagger of someone who’s got a limitless supply of moonshine at the start of Prohibition, with DiCaprio delivering every one of Ernest’s twangy half-thoughts directly from the bottom of his sunken jowls; imagine an entire performance born from the Lemmons scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and a character designed to pacify all those people who argued that Jordan Belfort was just too darn likable.

Ernest’s good looks, bad brains, and general disinterest in the consequences of his own actions wouldn’t seem to be a recipe for success, but his upwardly mobile uncle — William Hale, the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills” — knows a useful idiot when he sees one. Played by a sickly sweet and unyieldingly sinister Robert De Niro, Hale is a local businessman who claims, with no small amount of condescension, to love the Osage like his own children. In fact, he would love for them to be his own children, with their headrights gushing up to his wallet like oil from the ground beneath their feet. As Hale puts it to his nephew: “If you’re gonna make trouble, make it big.”

By that point, Hale has already identified Ernest as the perfect derrick for one of the biggest untapped veins in town: An unmarried Osage woman named Mollie Kyle. Soon to be rechristened Mrs. Burkhart (“Certain Women” breakout Lily Gladstone, an undeniably major talent), Mollie may be “incompetent” under the eyes of the white man’s law, but she can’t even say that word without betraying the bitterly ferocious intellect of someone who knows the score, recognizes that she’s being played, and has reluctantly accepted the fact that her people have few alternative options.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Killers of the Flower Moon"
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon”Apple

Gladstone conveys that much and more within just a few seconds of appearing on screen, which proves essential to a very long film that never affords her character the time she deserves. Mollie’s first-act flirtation with Ernest finds “The Killers of the Flower Moon” at its most agile and alive, with Scorsese firing on all cylinders as his movie explodes out of the gate. As Mollie’s closest relatives start dropping like flies, however, and Mrs. Ernest Burkhart herself slips into a diabetic stupor that will keep her off her feet for the length of an entire “Kundun,” the story around her downshifts into a scattered array of errant details that don’t equal the sum of their parts (at least upon the first viewing of a film that’s impossible to fully digest in one go). By the time Mollie re-emerges into the spotlight a few hours later, still the movie’s richest character, it’s too late to plumb the full complexity of her feelings about the terror on either a personal or collective level.

That proves all the more frustrating because she and Ernest make such a spellbinding pair together, particularly as their genuine affection for each other begins to outlive many of Mollie’s other family members. Ernest becomes so accustomed to the leash Hale keeps around his neck that he almost surrenders the last of his free will, but DiCaprio’s performance — against all odds — stirs a strange kind of sympathy from the spectacle of an oafish, vile man who no longer understands the truth of his own feelings, let alone the role he may have played in poisoning the only person who cares about him. It’s thrillingly ambiguous and uncomfortable stuff, and Gladstone matches DiCaprio beat-for-beat as a woman who experiences the same queasiness because she does understand the truth of her own feelings.

That this film survives the semi-tedious courtroom drama it becomes toward the end is a testament to Scorsese’s enduring genius for bad romance; no storyteller on Earth is better at blurring the fine line between love and exploitation, whether between two people, or two peoples. It might be a bit reductive to think of Ernest and Mollie’s relationship as a metaphor for that between white America and the Osage Nation, but the anguish and confusion that Scorsese wrings from it is so powerful that it practically demands to be considered in such a broad historical context. At the very least, it resonates within a context of Scorsese’s own: as De Niro’s puckered Hale plots the destruction of the same Osage Nation families who saw him as a benevolent intermediary to white America, you might hear echoes (or pre-cursors) of the same disassociation that coursed through the likes of “Casino” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” I was reminded of the last thought that went through Ace Rothstein’s head before a car exploded under his feet: “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.”

But it’s not the kind of love he gave, or the kind that Hale gives here to a people who are in dire need of a white man with their best interests at heart. What they fail to realize is that Hale is convinced the Osage Nation’s time is over, and that he’s just an agent of fate who’s helping to unburden them of their wealth before they settle into the past. With the help of Ernest’s brother (Scott Shepherd) and the rest of his lackeys (a deep bench of great faces, including Sturgill Simpson and the morbidly hilarious Louis Cancelmi), Hale kills the Osage with the indifference of a tiger mauling its prey.

Even in spite of Hale’s anti-historical reasoning, however, the film’s pinhole focus makes it hard to appreciate him as anything more than a homicidal capitalist. That’s what he was, of course, but without broader context this smiling monster comes off as more of an anomaly than a symptom of a deeper American sickness (Roth and Scorsese’s wise decision to invoke the Tulsa Race Massacre is the exception that proves the rule). Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s many-splendored palette of dry and dusty browns creates a palpable sense of time and place, but the frame of his camera is seldom allowed to expand much wider than Fisk’s Main Street set, as a story that begins with an eye toward the limitless potential of America’s future gradually constricts into a series of medium shots that frame out the same people from whom that future was denied.

It’s a difficult balancing act for a filmmaker as gifted and operatic as Scorsese, whose ability to tell any story rubs up against his ultimate admission that this might not be his story to tell. And so, for better or worse, Scorsese turns “Killers of the Flower Moon” into the kind of story that he can still tell better than anyone else: A story about greed, corruption, and the mottled soul of a country that was born from the belief that it belonged to anyone callous enough to take it.

Grade: B+

“Killers of the Flower Moon” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Apple Studios and Paramount Pictures will release it in theaters on Friday, October 20.

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