Thursday, November 16, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: A Review (Review #1765)


At a time when people can call Joy Ride the best comedy of 2023 and Across the Spider-Verse "one of the greatest films ever made in the history of cinema" (both said by the same person I might add), I am despairing about both film reviewing and cinema itself. Killers of the Flower Moon is the first film in a long time that had me think there is still hope, even if its creator is entering the twilight of his career. 

The Osage Native American people are both blessed and cursed. Having been pushed off their original land for Oklahoma reservations, the discovery of oil has made them among the wealthiest people in America. Their traditional ways have them share in the profits, but as the saying goes, "mo' money, mo' problems". Soon, the Osage are given "guardians" to watch over their fortune. The guardians, however shady as they are, pale in comparison to the vultures waiting to take over.

Into this comes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran come to live with his uncle, William "King" Hale (Robert DeNiro). Hale appears to be the friend to the Osage, a benevolent white figure that sides with them. In reality, he is a greedy man who lusts after the Osage people's mineral rights. Hale pushes Ernest to court and marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage whose family has vast holdings. Mollie is pretty and pretty shrewd, fully aware that the "coyotes want money". Nevertheless, Ernest is very handsome, and they marry.

Hale knows that the fewer members of Mollie's family are around, the greater the share of Ernest's inheritance will be. Slowly, Mollie's other sisters and mother start succumbing to death. While matriarch Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) dies of natural causes (at least I think she did), the other sisters are not so lucky. Drunk troublemaker Anna (Cara Jade Myers) is brutally shot. Mollie's other sister Reta (JaNae Collins) is literally blown up. All the while Mollie is slowly growing weaker physically and morally. Her illness is diabetes, but Hale is not above pushing Ernest into putting a little something in her insulin (a new product for the time) to help get Mollie out of the way.

Despite her illness, Mollie has enough strength to join a group of Osage and plead their case with President Calvin Coolidge. This gets the then-Bureau of Investigation to look into the Reign of Terror that the Osage have been living through. Agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) comes looking around to investigate the various killings. It is not long before Ernest is caught in his involvement with the targeting of Mollie's family but that of Mollie's first husband, the depressed Henry Roan (William Belleau), who mistakenly trusted Hale, unaware that Hale benefited from his death. A trial against Hale gets temporary justice, but as the radio show that has chronicled the Osage murders tells us, things did not end well.

At its heart, Killers of the Flower Moon is a tragedy, chronicling the evil that men do out of greed. Scorsese shocks the viewer with the randomness of some of the killings. Early on, an Osage mother meets a shocking and ghastly end. The coldness of that act, coupled with Gladstone's voiceover that it was ruled "a suicide" makes it all the crueler. The refrain of "no investigation" to clear acts of murder makes it more chilling. 

The film does not shrink from being graphic, but it also brilliantly builds up suspense. We the audience, for example, know that Rita and her family are in grave danger. Scorsese, however, keeps us waiting by pulling the camera in Mollie and Ernest's bedroom, the windows prominent on the screen. Even though we know something is coming, we are still jolted by the ferocity and horror of Rita's brutal end.

Visually, Killers of the Flower Moon is arresting. A sequence where Ernest sees Hale burning down his fields to Blind Willie Johnson's Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground looks like a vision of Hell, with Hale as Satan himself. 

Killers of the Flower Moon also has truly exceptional performances. I think Leonardo DiCaprio has done some of his best work here as the gullible, corrupt and weak Ernest Burkhart. DiCaprio makes him dumb, weak, sometimes sleazy, sometimes remorseful but also unwilling to face the truth of his actions. Ultimately, Ernest comes across as thoroughly pathetic in every meaning of the word. Near the end of the film, with his life and family in tatters, he remarks, "I ain't got nothing but regret". It is an admission both painful and slightly dishonest. 

Lily Gladstone is the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon as Mollie. She brings a quiet dignity and grace to a woman caught up in terrible circumstances. Gladstone makes Mollie an intelligent woman, one aware that she is a target for gold-diggers but also susceptible to false promises of love. There is also a quiet resignation to the indignities she must endure, such as when she has to call herself "incompetent" when asking her guardian for her own money. Gladstone captures you every time she is on screen. I keep thinking the word "quiet" when it comes to her performance. That, however, does not suggest a passivity or weakness. Far from it: Gladstone brings great strength to Mollie.

DeNiro has come out of the fog of his mugging and Bad Grandpa stage to deliver the goods. The evil face behind the mask of benevolence, DeNiro's William Hale is a thoroughly evil man. What makes DeNiro more effective is that he rarely if ever rages. There are maybe one or two scenes when Hale is out of control. There is when he is whacking his nephew for botching a job. Another is when he screams out, "GIVE ME MY HENRY ROAN MONEY!" when he is attempting to collect on the life insurance policy he took out on an unwitting Roan. Even then, his moments of overwhelming anger fit into Hale's character, that of a man used to getting his way. 

Martin Scorsese masterfully directs all his cast to fine performances, except for recent Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser as Hale's defense attorney W.S. Hamilton. Hammy and fat, Fraser devoured the screen whole in his brief role. That might have been what Scorsese wanted, but it comes across as wildly over-the-top. 

Killers of the Flower Moon also has exceptional production work. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is at times spellbinding (the closing scene is beautiful), and the late Robbie Robertson's score mixes Native American elements with almost a bit of rock, building menace when needed. Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker rarely lets the pacing lag, even at almost three and a half hours.

There are aspects that people have criticized. The length is one. Could it have been shorter or with an intermission? I think it could have and might have benefitted from one. The closing scene of the FBI Stories radio show with Scorsese has also, I think, been called into question. I thought it was a clever and period-appropriate way to sum up what happened after the events of the film versus having online text tell us. I also think Scorsese's appearance is fine. It is almost his way of summarizing both the film and the real-life horror & tragedy we have seen. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is the best film I have seen so far this year. Intelligent, gripping, with excellent performances, this is a strong film of a story that needs to be better known and remembered. 

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