Throughout his long career, director Martin Scorsese has used gangsters, especially those associated with the Mafia, to talk about America. In the thrilling and bloody code of Goodfellas or Casino hides the image of this country’s greed, its wild excesses, its ornate history of violence. Although he has made other types of films, Scorsese has returned time and again to the criminal realm, seemingly unable to shake his fascination with America’s dark economy.
With 2019’s The Irishman, it seemed like Scorsese was closing a circle, crafting a gangster portrait in its finale. But for his next assignment, the director has gone further back in time to investigate yet another organized brutality. With Killers of the Flower Moon, which premiered Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival, Scorsese is adapting David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, a chronicle of the Osage murders in 1920s Oklahoma. Over the course of three and a half hours, Scorsese maps out a massive injustice, adding yet another piece to his grand collage of a nation’s brutality.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, a simple-minded World War I veteran who moves to Osage County to work for his uncle, William Hale, a wealthy and respected rancher played by Robert De Niro. has come. Hale is not in the oil business, but he is surrounded by his wealth. The Osage people have discovered oil on their land and have access to most of its benefits. It is one of the places with the most money per capita in the world, its residents traveling in luxury cars, wearing fine furs and jewelry on their way to their luxurious homes.
The Osage oil boom was a rare example of Native Americans gaining control over resources, which was certainly anathema to the many whites who came to the county to work in the oil fields. Their barely covert efforts to steal this native wealth are vividly exposed in Killer of the Flower Moon, arguably Scorsese’s most sadistic and damaging film to date.
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Ernest meets Mollie Kyle, a wealthy Osage woman who catches everyone’s attention with her serene beauty and fresh, cheerful demeanor. Lily Gladstone plays her with a quiet but poignant dignity; Molly is, in a sense, the heroine of the film, although she is isolated from both natural and man-made ailments. The Killers of the Flower Moon suggest that there is a true love between Mollie and Ernest, distorted by the dire predicament of Ernest and his clan. The film follows the systematic dehumanization of Mollie, her family, and her community, as they are dispatched one by one with guns, poisons, and bombs, their oil rights transferred to white men.
It is a miniature massacre through which Scorsese addresses the displacement and extermination of Native Americans. Unlike his other gangster films, Killer of the Flower Moon is never excessive in its violence. There is tremendous energy in some scenes, but the film is at times as serious and contemplative as Scorsese’s epic Silence whispering about the extremism of faith. Nevertheless, the film speaks volumes about the long horrors of colonialism, its terrifying reach and its destruction.
Throughout its length, Killers of the Flower Moon does, at times, wail. Plot points come and fade without ado, only to be picked up on much later. Characters enter and leave the scene. There’s a lingering shame, an implication of something terrible and invisible that hangs over the edges of each scene. An appropriate technique for a film about a series of murders that went uninvestigated for an embarrassingly long time. However, at times the film becomes difficult to control. The viewer is kept at a certain distance: there is no in-depth character study of Ernest, nor of William, nor any psychological or social interpretation.
However, this may be the goal. The lightness of these crimes, the moral ease with which they were committed, is perhaps the best and most appropriate way to frame them. After all, The Killers of the Flower Moon is not about Ernest Burkhardt or William Hale, but about an American model, a terrible practice for the country. We don’t need to get to know these men in depth to understand who and what they represent.
However, more time could have been spent with Mollie and her family. Molly becomes bedridden, diabetic and giddy from drugs prescribed by Ernest and William’s hired doctors, and is thus cut off from action. But I wanted to know more about her and her sisters, two of whom are killed at the beginning of the movie. For all the ramblings, there is not enough space to be devoted to restoring a clear personality to the people who have been so brutally robbed.
Still, Scorsese’s film is a chilling, gruesome portrayal of events that avoids the melodrama and sensationalism of many true crimes. Gladstone maintains the spirit of the film, while DiCaprio and De Niro portray the camaraderie of old friends hiding prejudice and greed. (Jesse Plemons is also a comforting presence as an investigator for the newly formed FBI.) Those who go to see Martin Scorsese’s film looking for an electric verve of many of his earlier works may be initially disappointed. Are. But as Killer of the Flower Moon progresses, it shocks, resonates and disturbs.