‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Review: An Unsettling Masterpiece


“Do you see the wolves in this picture,” Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio) reads aloud as he works his way through a children’s book early in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The wolves aren’t really hidden at all, and they won’t be in the film that follows either, a masterful historical drama about evil operating in plain sight. One of the most disturbing things about Scorsese’s ambitious adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name is how little of its vile behavior stays in the shadows. This is the story of men who treated murder almost mundanely, issuing orders to have people killed like they would order a drink at the bar. Scorsese walks that fine line between telling a very specific story of a couple at the heart of a tragedy and commenting on the larger nature of evil. The wolves in "Killers of the Flower Moon" don’t hesitate to think that what they’re doing might be wrong as long as it profits them in the end.

After being pushed off their property to the presumed wasteland of Oklahoma around the turn of the last century, the Osage Nation was stunned to find itself the recipient of the earthly gift of oil, making them the wealthiest group of people in the country per capita relatively overnight. Naturally, the people who had claimed a country they never owned wanted a piece of this action, leading to a battle for land in the region, a conflict that turned a man named William King Hale (Robert De Niro) into a legend. While just a cattle baron himself, Hale was a kingmaker in the Osage region. He was able to play the political games that made him an ally to both the Osage and the white people in the area while working behind the scenes to line his pockets. De Niro gives one of the best performances of his career as a man who prefers to be called "King," rivetingly capturing the kind of sociopath who can sell murder with a smile. He doesn’t stab you in the back. He looks you in the eyes as he does it.

Hale senses someone easily manipulated in his nephew Ernest, who has returned home from the war, ready to be a good soldier for a new cause. Ernest starts as a driver in the area for the wealthy Osage, which leads him to Mollie (Lily Gladstone). The two marry just before Mollie’s family and other members of the Osage population are murdered one after another. Mollie’s sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers), who is married to Ernest’s brother Bryan (Scott Shepherd), is found shot by a creek on the same day that another Osage Nation man is shot. Mollie loses a sister to something called “Wasting Disease,” and discovers that she has diabetes herself, leading to bedrest that makes her an easy target for the evil growing in this region, possibly even in the heart of her husband.

Ernest, Mollie, and Hale are the trio around which everything in Eric Roth & Scorsese’s script orbits. But this tapestry of a historical drama is populated with dozens of other memorable characters and familiar faces, including Jesse Plemons as a BOI agent who would lead the investigation into the Osage murders, John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser as conflicting attorneys in the case, Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother, and a fascinating array of musicians turned actors that include Charlie Musselwhite, Sturgill Simpson, Pete Yorn, Jack White, and a memorable Jason Isbell, who gets a juicy role as Bill Smith, a brother-in-law of Ernest who could be trouble.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” may not be a traditional gangster picture, but it's completely in tune with the stories of corrupt, violent men that Scorsese has explored for a half-century. And yet there’s also a sense of age in Scorsese’s work here, the feeling that he's using this horrifying true story to interrogate how we got to where we are a hundred years later. How did we allow blood to fertilize the soil of this country? Scorsese and Roth took a book that’s essentially about the formation of the F.B.I. by way of the investigation into the Osage murders and shifted the storytelling to a more personal perspective for both Mollie and Ernest. Through their story, the film doesn’t just present injustice but reveals how intrinsic it was to the formation of wealth and inequity in this country. It hums with commentary on how this nonchalant violence against people deemed lesser pervaded a century of horror. The references to the Tulsa Massacre and the KKK aren’t incidental. It's all part of the big picture—one of people who subjugate because it's so easy for them to do so.

Of course, Scorsese's visions don’t work without his team of collaborators, and he’s brought in some of the best to tell this tale. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is sweeping when it needs to capture the vast territory of the Osage Nation but can also be intense with a sweaty close-up. Robbie Robertson’s thrumming score is practically a character, giving the film a heartbeat that adds tension to its notable runtime. This story wouldn't have nearly the same momentum with a traditional, classical score. Finally, Thelma Schoonmaker is partially responsible for Scorsese’s sense of rhythm as director, and “Killers of the Flower Moon” is one of her most notable accomplishments. Some will crack jokes about the editing given the runtime of Scorsese’s longest film but think of the scope of this multi-year saga and how deftly Schoonmaker helps pace the final piece, pushing us forward through our nation’s violent history without ever losing the thread of this complex saga.

As for performance, there’s inherent power to seeing Scorsese’s two muses act opposite each other for the first time since "This Boy's Life" as De Niro and DiCaprio fuel each other’s performances with what's basically another tale of an abusive father. But Gladstone will be the revelation for most people. The standout of “Certain Women” knows exactly how to play this role, never leaning into melodrama and always grounding her character in the truth of the moment instead of playing a stand-in for all Indigenous victims. There are times when it feels like “Killers of the Flower Moon” could spin out into a broader political statement, but the performances, especially Gladstone’s, keep the film in the truth of character. The whole ensemble understands this element, playing the reality of the situation instead of treating it like a history lesson. Mollie Burkhardt didn’t know her saga would help found the FBI or bring light to injustice a century later. She just wanted to survive and love like so many who were robbed of those basic human rights.

In the end, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is like a puzzle—each creative piece does its part to form the complete picture. When it’s put together, it’s depressingly easy to see the wolves. The question now is, what do we do when we find them?

In theaters on October 20th and on Apple TV+ at a later date.

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