Killers of the Flower Moon : Movie Review

Posted by Eddie Pasa on October 18, 2023 in / No Comments


Rated R by the MPA for violence, some grisly images, and language. Running time: 206 minutes. Released by Paramount Pictures and Apple Studios.

The story of the Osage Indian Murders in the early 1900s is a ghastly reminder that greed destroys everyone in which it can find purchase. It is a demon that doesn’t stop coming, always perpetuating itself in one form or another. Fewer examples are more chilling than this spate of murders, the beneficiaries of which sought to claim the deceased’s oil headrights and fortunes. And who better to show us the organization behind this whole operation than the gangster godfather himself, Martin Scorsese?

Killers of the Flower Moon, while dressed in the robes of simpler common folk and centered upon indigenous people, finds Scorsese doing his usual Scorsese stuff. There’s something someone wants to take, and they’re going to take it by any means necessary. Rules are flouted, schemes are hatched and executed, and we even have an “eliminate the conspirators” sequence, a highlight of most of Scorsese’s gangster pictures. Only this time, Robert De Niro gets to play the head of the crime family instead of being one of its soldiers, and the outro of “Layla” isn’t on the soundtrack as bodies start to pile up.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures, Apple StudiosYet we also find Scorsese allowing the camera to tell the story instead of going for brute force. While no less artistic than The Irishman or any of his latter-day output, there’s a certain way that he has chosen to let us breathe in the film’s air rather than force it upon us. The story itself is enough to hold our interest; all he has to do is tell cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto where to point the camera and let the story unfold, allowing its urgency and intrigue to unfold over its epic – and necessary – running time. Each moment sinks us further into Ernest Burkhart’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) dual life as a worried husband and his uncle William King Hale’s (Robert De Niro) button man.

Beginning with a sequence featuring an Osage rite of mourning the old ways coming to pass, Killers of the Flower Moon quickly shoulders us into how this specific tribe’s fortunes turn for the best after oil is found on their land. In one of longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s patented montages, we see how fast the paupers become the princes, indulging in conveniences and luxuries saved for the more moneyed – cars, furs, jewels, the latest fashions, etc. – and how fast white men move to get some of their riches. Whether through legal means (portraits, goods, or services) or illegal (theft, fraud, and murder), Scorsese flips our preconceptions against us and shows us a town where white people are the ones being left in the lurch and the “others” hold all the cards.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures, Apple StudiosSo begins the Osage County Reign of Terror, headed up by Hale – who, tellingly, wants to be called “King” – as he shows a genteel, caring face to the public while laying disturbing plots behind closed doors. With Ernest fresh out of the war and needing a job commensurate with his lack of education, it’s easy for the wealthy King to sucker him into marrying into the Osage fortunes by way of Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone); King won’t tell him exactly what he’s got in mind, but the best he’ll let on is that all of the family’s money is going to fall to her one day. To ensure that, there are a few roadblocks he has to go through – namely, Mollie’s sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers), mother Lizzie Q. (Tantoo Cardinal), and other family members. And with no one standing in his way or willing to stand in his way, King’s gonna get what he wants how he wants.

Together with brother Bryan (Scott Shepherd), Ernest starts carrying out his uncle’s dirty work while maintaining a straight, loving face toward Mollie and their children. One starts to wonder where his loyalties lie, even though he puts Mollie through hell. He stands by, ever the stalwart husband, as Mollie sees her family systematically eliminated and is given bad medicine by King-affiliated doctors for her diabetes. Lily Gladstone puts on a clinic portraying Mollie’s torturous journey, maintaining an eroding foundation of strength while her faculties and family members slip away; one can almost tell how much faith Scorsese puts into Gladstone and gets every ounce of it back with her performance. She makes Mollie a ponderous, dangerous millstone around Ernest’s neck, even unto her final words she shares with him.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures, Apple StudiosOpposite Gladstone, we find Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro holding down their side of the film reliably and with purpose. De Niro’s given a chance to be The Man, the one who showers gifts upon his subjects and terrorizes his less-than-loyal staff in confidence, and he doesn’t waste a second. It’s good to see him in this kind of role, as the one calling the shots and answering to no one – something we haven’t seen him seriously do since Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat. Instead of being a fastidious, efficient thief, he exercises alternating benevolence with ruthlessness, but it’s not an immediate ruthlessness; what drives him is his seemingly unending patience with Ernest and the townspeople, as if he knows everything will play out as planned.

And as Ernest, the oft-bumbling loser who can barely be relied upon to do a job right, Di Caprio beguiles with his understated and underestimated performance. He sinks his teeth right into Ernest, physically transforming his countenance into a growling menace whose jaw stays clenched as the world spirals out of his control. While he has to listen to his uncle’s instructions and thinly veiled insults, he also has to pretend to care about a woman he’s eventually going to have to kill, but Di Caprio’s performance lets us believe it’s gone beyond pretending into actual love, bearing the struggle between his two lives with nuanced depth. No other actor could have done what Di Caprio does here, capably emoting through body language, inference, and physical appearance which often outweigh Scorsese and Eric Roth’s scripted words.

DC Movie Critics, DC Movie Reviews, DC Film Critics, Eddie Pasa, Movie Critics, Film Critics, Movie Review, Film Review, Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures, Apple StudiosIn his fourth collaboration with Scorsese, Rodrigo Prieto’s sumptuous photography has the uncanny ability to mesmerize and discomfit, putting us in proximity to innocents and villains in the same frames and using spatial relations to set off how we’re made to feel about them. Along with the dusky beauty of post-war Osage County, Prieto finds anchors in every shot to pin our emotions and wandering thoughts of how this crime saga could play out, seldom straying from a brown-dominated palette to keep us grounded in the netherworld of King’s machinations. Color shifts to starker blues, greens, and reds (the latter coming in very late) call our attentions to more provocative turning points, whether it’s the scene of a crime, a jailhouse interrogation, or course changes in Ernest’s life. What’s more is that Prieto doesn’t seem like he’s overextending himself; he does this with practiced ease, giving room for the story to explain itself through his lens rather than force it to unfold.

Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s 25th feature-length directorial film in a career that’s lasted over 50 years, and he’s still showing us that he has what it takes to rock our worlds to their core with his storytelling prowess. Yes, this film might be just a shift from 1970s New York to turn-of-the-century Oklahoma as far as crime families and their schemes, but the care with which he frames his story has taken on a more profound depth. He’s less interested in going for the throat than showing you why and how he does what he does. It would be a mistake to think of the long running times of his films as overindulgence; instead, he lets the story tell itself, and if it takes 206 minutes, then it takes 206 minutes. Not one frame is spare, not one sequence inconsequential; this is a master at work, and his latest offering is proof of complete and total command of his art.

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Eddie Pasa

Eddie is a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). Since starting in 2010 at The Rogers Revue, Eddie has written for Reel Film News (now defunct), co-founded DC Filmdom, and writes occasionally for Gunaxin. When not reviewing movies, he's spending time with his wife and children, repeat-viewing favorites on 4k or Blu-Ray, working for rebranding agency Mekanic, or playing acoustic shows and DJing across the DC/MD/VA area. Special thanks go to Jenn Carlson, Moira and Ari Pasa, Viki Nova at City Dock Digital in Annapolis, Mike Parsons, Philip Van Der Vossen, and Dean Rogers.

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