This hugely ambitious take on David Grann's non-fiction book is engaging and well-made, but it's lacking the director's usual spark
The erasure of the Native American identity has rarely been treated as a subject of seriousness in mainstream cinema, while those films that do centre on the topic have a tendency to patronise the affected. So here is Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the highly acclaimed non-fiction book by David Grann, which lands with the unmistakable sense of airing an entire nation's dirty laundry; a true crime parable about the poison of whiteness that led to the birth of what we now know as modern America.
The film begins in 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, as the Osage tribe discover the land they've been allowed to inhabit by the white population is rich with oil, inadvertently making them into some of the wealthiest people on the planet. Guess who wants it back? War veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) rolls into town and is quickly taken under the wing of his conniving crook of an uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), who has already wormed his way in with the Osage under the illusion of solidarity and is involved in a complex web of conspiracy to take their land, mostly by murder but also by marrying off his relatives to the Osage women (and then murdering them, too). He suggests – strongly – that Ernest marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and so this murky, doomed love affair becomes the hook on which Scorsese hangs the country's moral decay.
This being a Scorsese film, it goes without saying that it's a very competent and engaging piece of work, masterfully photographed and well-acted, running at a whopping three hours and 26 minutes in length. But after a bravado opening, which gives us a remarkable, slow-motion sequence of the Osage bathing in a geyser of burst oil, followed by a sweeping crane shot at a railway station that could have come right out of Once Upon a Time in the West, the movie enters a mode of info-dumping that begins to feel on the repetitive side (the script was co-written by Scorsese and Eric Roth). The “and then this happened…” type approach has worked wonders for this filmmaker in the past, but here the relentless regurgitation, the sheer amount of talk, talk, talk, rendered without much visual variation, holds the audience at a remove rather than inviting them to lean in and actually feel the drama. For what it’s worth, it's never boring (a feat for nearly four hours), but, strange for a Scorsese film, it never fully gets its hooks into you, either.
Perhaps this more conservative approach was intended as a way to avoid exploiting the material for obvious entertainment (a point that's addressed in the film's clever, self-aware coda). But then Scorsese has also seemingly imagined this as a kind of comic tragedy, too, with undeniable funny notes peppered throughout, in which we're invited to laugh at the buffoonery and, yes, the audacity of its entitled white characters (there's an argument to be made that, with such tight focus on the white characters, we eventually lose sight of who this was really meant to be about). Thematically, and sometimes even tonally, Killers finds the capitalist critique and also broader humour of his Wolf of Wall Street, blending it with the slow, wistful sense of recounted history that powered his other recent cine-tome, The Irishman.
As Hale's insidious, years-long bid to wrestle territory away from its rightful owners take us to the movie's mid-point, a new dramatic possibility is suggested with the arrival of FBI agent Tom White (what should have felt like a watershed performance by Jesse Plemmons). Sent by J. Edgar Hoover to look into the pile-up of murders, White preys upon dumbfounded Ernest, pulling the third act into a kind of bizarre courtroom drama. But Plemmons, usually excellent, fades into the background here, failing to take the reins in the way that's needed at such a juncture. De Niro, meanwhile, as synonymous with Scorsese as the needle drop of a Rolling Stones record, is stand-out as a slippery businessman-cum-mobster, played like a mash-up of his past iconic gangster roles, from Al Capone to Jimmy Conway: alternately seductive, frightening and unreadable, often within the same beat, De Niro looks more engaged with the material than you’d expect for a man whose last movie was something called Savage Salvation.
Then there's DiCaprio, an undeniable screen presence, snivelling his way through proceedings with a perpetual upside-down mouth, cast in the part of a simpleton who is easily manipulated and moulded by those always playing a smarter game. But despite the dedication and innate watchability, we can't help but see the inner intelligence of DiCaprio, the actor, that makes him feel oddly miscast in the part here. Opposite him, Lily Gladstone, as Mollie, arrives with an air of dignity and power that initially feels interesting and subversive. But the role, through no fault of her own (this really happened, after all), eventually pushes her into a corner she can't escape from (namely a bed, where she spends the whole second half of the film). It can't help but feel like a loss.
By the end, countless murders later, we're asked to believe that, in his own twisted and demented way, despite everything that he puts her through, Ernest still loves Mollie. It's an odd note that doesn't quite convince. The movie puts us through a lot, too, but it can blend together in a way that makes it hard to isolate stand-out moments or identify the pieces – a work not necessarily bolstered by the massive runtime but undermined by it. Killers of the Flower of Moon never puts a foot wrong, exactly, but the telling of this bloody, very true tragedy winds up feeling closer to a work of very impressive functionality rather than a late-career masterpiece.
Killers of the Flower Moon was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas and on Apple TV+ on 20 October.Where to watch