It wasn't long after the world premiere of Martin Scorsese's latest film Killers of the Flower Moon that I found myself watching an entertainment channel where a journalist was interviewing one of the film's multiple Indigenous consultants. Always one for exacting authenticity, Scorsese had gone to great effort to ensure the accuracy of the film's production design, costuming, and language among other areas.
In this interview, this consultant was speaking with great respect for Scorsese's efforts yet, with remarkable grace and eloquence, also lamented that Killers of the Flower Moon had essentially told its story through the lens of Leonardo DiCaprio's Ernest Burkhart. In essence, in trying to create a film about the evils that white men did to the Osage nation Scorsese had, intentionally or not, exacted the same type of second-class citizenry with a story that practically begged and pleaded to be told through the lens of Lily Gladstone's Mollie.
Now then, as I listened to this consultant and realized that he had simply and with great clarity communicated what had bothered me about Killers of the Flower Moon I had to really ask myself "Is this simply a value judgment?"
Was I really just projecting what I wish Scorsese, alongside co-screenwriter Eric Roth, had done? If so, I needed to set it aside because my job as a film journalist is to write about the film I've been given and not the film I wish I'd been given.
After nearly 24 hours of reflection, I found myself of the opinion that "No, this was not a value judgment." Instead, I found myself believing that a better film was bubbling underneath the surface of Killers of the Flower Moon. While Scorsese had detoured away from the central focus of David Grann's 2017 nonfiction book upon which the film is based by focusing less on the investigative aspects of this story, the decision to tell the story largely, though not completely, through the eyes of Ernest rather than Mollie results in a story that never resonates emotionally, never carries a cultural urgency, and never completely satisfies. In the end, we're left with a story that we already know while a far more relevant, urgent, and compelling story is left on the sideline. It's not so much that Scorsese made a bad film. It's that Scorsese has made a far lesser film than Killers of the Flower Moon could have been.
Much has been made of Killer of the Flower Moon's running time at just under 3-1/2 hours. Nonsense! A film should be as long as the story needs it to be and with a story as complex as this one, Killers of the Flower Moon could have easily redeemed itself with patient and insightful storytelling. Instead, 2/3 of Killers of the Flower Moon meanders its way through formulaic storytelling and superficial characterizations.
KIllers of the Flower Moon rests itself in the real-life story of a series of killings in the Osage Nation lands of Oklahoma during the 1920s and 1930s after the Osage's land had been found to be rich with oil turning the Osage into the "richest people per capita" in the United States. Of course, this attracted attention, mostly of the formerly dominant white men, and this is where our story takes off.
DiCaprio is Ernest Burkhart, a World War I veteran played with an almost Of Mice and Men simplicity, who arrives in town and quickly aligns himself with his seemingly amiable but obviously not uncle Bill "King" Hale (Robert De Niro). While DiCaprio's ultimately evil intentions is at times in question, perhaps even justified, De Niro's King is pure evil from the get go and we never believe otherwise. Rather quickly, Ernest will find himself drawn toward Mollie (Lily Gladstone), whose family is particularly wealthy and whose wealth is subject to both Ernest and King's desires.
To be fair, the pairing of DiCaprio and De Niro is an inspired one. Both make the most of their material and clearly relish the opportunity to work with one another. They are both obviously gifted actors, perhaps among the most gifted of their generation, making more out of this material than is actually present. However, as I'm sure will be said time and again, Lily Gladstone herself is the real revelation here. Having first come to light with Certain Women and also this year's Funny Dance, Gladstone gives such a remarkable performance that you can't help but further lament that the story isn't told through her eyes. While DiCaprio and De Niro are legendary cinematic heavyweights, it's clear that Gladstone was up to the task of carrying this film and the story needed her to do so.
Among the supporting players, Jesse Plemons lights up the entire screen when he arrives far too late in the film as FBI Agent Tom White. Cara Jade Myers shines as Anna and, it must be said, Brendan Fraser is an absolute highlight in his far too brief scenes as W.S. Hamilton. If you look carefully, you'll see a handful of musicians in the film including Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Jack White.
I struggled most with how to rate and review Killers of the Flower Moon largely owing to its remarkable production values. This is, of course, typical of a Scorsese feature and in his 26th feature it's clear this octogenarian is still exploring the wide tapestry that cinema has to offer. Regular collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker's editing vividly captures the violence without glorifying it. Robbie Robertson's original score weaves layers of Indigenous history into its rhythms that are both jarring and unforgettable. Rodrigo Prieto's lensing for the film is equally vibrant rather shooting the vastness of the Oklahoma landscape or the uncomfortable intimacies of conflict and/or faux relationships.
There is, quite simply, much to appreciate within Killers of the Flower Moon.
Ultimately, however, Killers of the Flower Moon disappoints. I understand the attraction to centering the film through Ernest, a supposedly morally conflicted young man caught somewhere between his purely evil uncle, whose actions are well supported communally, and his supposed affection for Mollie and her family. However, the story co-written by Scorsese and Roth never really bears out this moral conflict and, more often than not, makes light of it with oddly placed, though cinematically entertaining, scenes of humor likely the result of DiCaprio and De Niro's natural chemistry. It feels as if we're being forced to accept a redemptive arc that Ernest hasn't earned. At one point, I found myself thinking of the Dixie Chicks, now The Chicks, and their domestic violence song and video "Goodnight, Earl." Ernest may not possess the pure evil that King possesses, but his evil, for anyone who works within the world of violence, is often times more dangerous and his gaslighting, more genteel acts are no less menacing and ultimately life-altering.
If anything, it feels as if the lighter and more entertaining moments of Killers of the Flower Moon are, intentionally or not, making Ernest's actions more palatable and more relatable. Again, if the story had been told through the lens of Mollie this never would have happened.
Killers of the Flower Moon isn't a bad film. While I am not one to begrudge those who appreciate and resonate with a film, for myself I can't help but think that Killers of the Flower Moon never quite achieves what Scorsese was aiming for and never quite becomes the film it could have been. The technical craft is alive and well here and watching this ensemble come to life is a joy, but Killers of the Flower Moon never really does its story justice and the final result is one of Scorsese's most underwhelming and frustrating cinematic efforts.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic