“Killers of the Flower Moon” comes with two bookends that seem to me like director Martin Scorsese accepting defeat. It begins with an old-fashioned newsreel that exuberantly tells us about the fate of the Osage people and how an oil deposit on Osage land gave these Native Americans immense wealth and a rich lifestyle. More than three hours later, it caps off this story with a true crime radio play epilogue, complete with sound effects and cartoonish voice acting à la “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Between these scenes, Killers of the Flower Moon is a meticulous character study about a white family’s attempts to destroy the Osage while posing as their friends – this is a true story. But these bookends feel like an acknowledgment of the limitations of the format – try as they might, Scorsese and Co. I can’t really do this story justice with something as frivolous as a film. Even one that’s three and a half hours long.
Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for “Killers of a Flower Moon” relating to the development of characters based on the true story behind the film.
Still, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is quite an experience. It centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, who shows up in Oklahoma to find work with his uncle William (Robert De Niro) and brother (Scott Shepherd), who are enmeshed in the Osage community. Ernest begins his time there as a taxi driver and soon meets an Osage woman named Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone).
Uncle William encourages Ernest to get closer to Molly – if he marries her, Ernest could inherit the Osage land rights, which gave members of the Osage Nation a share of their oil money. But he can’t inherit anything as long as Molly’s family lives. And so one by one, Molly’s sisters and other Osage people are killed, the sheriff doesn’t care at all and it’s William who is behind it.
What’s particularly fascinating is the way Killers of the Flower Moon treats Ernest, portraying him almost as an innocent and clueless man being manipulated by his terrible uncle. But the film reveals him little by little, piece by piece, first only hinting that he may know more about these dark plans, and then slowly, over hours, revealing the painful depths of his complicity. But despite all this, Ernest holds on to his belief in his own goodness – he never manages to fully come to terms with the reality of his life with William, who leads Ernest to call him king.
Much of Ernest’s cognitive dissonance is inspired by what the film portrays as seemingly genuine love for Molly. Molly is a cautious woman, but she falls in love with Ernest because he seems very open and sincere – he admits that he would like to make use of Molly’s money rather than trying to pretend otherwise, as other men might have done , and Molly appreciates the openness.
Molly also finds herself in a difficult situation, as all full-blooded Osage required a white guardian to access their money – something Molly had to do several times in Killers of the Flower Moon. By marrying Ernest, she can supposedly get around this problem, assuming he’s not a terrible person, and so it’s not hard to understand the urge.
Gladstone’s almost stoic performance is in stark contrast to the more soulful DiCaprio and the ever-talking De Niro – she plays a lot with little facial expressions, like a little grin, a sideways glance and things like that. She has the air of a character who constantly thinks about the situation and realizes that she doesn’t have many options. And although she is rarely loud, she always exudes a serious presence.
For me personally, however, as someone with a lot of real, personal experience of William’s brand of duplicitous Christianity, it was De Niro who made the biggest impression. De Niro perfectly takes on the air of a comforting old man, spouting evangelical truisms every time an Osage man is killed – even though his character was responsible for all the grief from the start. It’s terrible, but to me it’s also a very real and poignant dichotomy, and Killers of the Flower Moon walks a fine line that few filmmakers other than Scorsese could have pulled off. See also: Silence, a religious drama that, in my opinion, is Scorsese’s masterpiece.
The key to everything I like about “Killers of the Flower Moon” is its length. This thing lasts three hours and 26 minutes, which is a very long time to go to the theater, but that length is necessary. If anything, it’s not enough. Killers of the Flower Moon is an immersive experience that shows you what you need to see rather than telling you what you need to know. It’s an everyday story that puts you in the shoes of these characters as best as it can – there’s actually depth to the narrative, and the result is that at the end we feel Molly’s truth and not just simple knowing It.
For this reason, it would have been okay for me if it had taken longer. Killers of the Flower Moon is super long, yes, but that length, along with Scorsese’s cinematic approach, allows us to really live with these characters and understand them in a meaningful way – but with more time, we might even have them got to know better.