Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is adapted by the eponymous book by David Grann. The film focuses on a series of murders in Oklahoma, which were committed in the 1920s after oil was discovered in Osage County in 1897.
Ahead of its release, Killers of the Flower Moon is one of this year’s most anticipated films. Not only is it the latest film by one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers but its budget had reached the eye-watering heights of $200m – double that of Oppenheimer and $120m more than that of The Creator. The film also reunites Scorsese with two of his most significant collaborators, de Niro and DiCaprio, both of whom have starred in Oscar-nominated Scorsese works and have worked together in This Boy’s Life and Marvin’s Room. With the addition of supporting cast members that include John Lithgow, recent Oscar winner Brendan Fraser and nominee Jesse Plemons, there are high hopes for this gargantuan collaborative effort.
From the outset, Killers of the Flower Moon establishes the close-knit community among the Osage Native Americans, whose humble beginnings drastically change when they discover oil under their land. The discovery soon sees them dress in fine clothing and jewels, as well as travel in chauffeured cars – all of which seem to make them a potential target for thieves and petty criminals wanting to make fast cash, or part of an elaborate con to rob them of their oil rights. It is the latter that forms the core narrative of the film, focusing on three principal characters – Osage member Mollie Kyle (Gladstone), her eventual husband Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) and his uncle William Hale (de Niro).
Scorsese and Roth’s screenplay quickly establishes a level of entitlement among the Caucasian characters, who talk cordially during the day and unashamedly thieve during the night. Whether it is through drug or moonshine running, gambling or insurance fraud, the corruption among the Americans is quick, infectious and constant throughout the film. This unfortunately hits the narrative with a double-edged sword – regardless of whether audiences are familiar with the Osage Nation murders or even read Grann’s book, establishing the key antagonists so quickly with a predictable angle (i.e. the greed of men) slightly dilutes the tension from a whodunnit to a race against time for everyone involved.
In addition, there is such a large focus on the murders themselves that the narrative seemingly pushes the Osage members aside to solely become supporting characters in this chapter of US history. Although audiences see them commune, attend church and occasionally behave recklessly, Killers of the Flower Moon does not provide much insight into the community itself so audiences do not see them adjust to their sudden wealth, realise the lucratively of the commodity under their feet or be aware of the danger posed by their immense wealth. The film also fails to explore the ramifications of the murders and how it affected the community – instead, the events are dramatised in an otherwise creative radio show (with a surprising end). This exclusion cuts the emotional turmoil of the parties involved and its lack of clarity begs the question: if the Osage inheritors had realised the oil-stained targets on the backs earlier, would these murders have come to light sooner?
While some Osage members choose to flaunt their wealth, protagonist Mollie is sensible with her money as she chooses to spend it on medical care for her diabetes and keeping a safe and comfortable home. The only luxury she pays for are taxi rides by Ernest, an American man who had returned from the war. Gladstone is a tour de force in her performance of Mollie – strong-willed, smart yet humble, she has an awareness of those around her and a quiet delivery that both chills and fortifies her character. Throughout the film, Mollie experiences a spectrum of emotions and Gladstone conveys each of them with such finesse that she easily gives cinematic veterans de Niro and DiCaprio a run for their money.
In fact, Gladstone is part of a trifecta of performances so good that they make Killers of the Flower Moon a compelling character study. In his best performance in years, de Niro is delightfully detestable as William Hale. His cheerful and friendly nature slowly fades as his greed subtly overcomes him, manipulating others (and especially Ernest) to act “for their own good” when it is to actually benefit him. Meanwhile, DiCaprio portrays Ernest with intricacy and sensitivity that effectively clouds his true intentions. He openly states “he loves money” and is a willing accomplice and criminal, so it is hard to believe that he is actually in love with Mollie, considering his role in everything that occurs. Although the film hints at his naivety and unintelligence that would make him an ideal “puppet”, his blind support of Hale despite each order and incident questions as to which “family” he is really loyal. His wavering allegiance doesn’t go unnoticed by certain supporting characters such as federal agent Tom White (Plemons) and attorney W S Hamilton (Fraser), both of whom take advantage of his confused state for their own goals.
Throughout the film, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is visually complex and considerate. His intimate shots encapsulate the rich colours within the beautiful costume design, especially among the Osage members, as well as highlights the various lighting levels to retain tension or even evoke horror among viewers. As for the direction, Scorsese delivers a technical masterclass that wonderfully keeps his audiences glued to the screen for the whole 206-minute runtime. He ensures each new development or character keeps the plot moving and he doesn’t let the pace deter for one moment – the fact that there was input from the Osage Nation during production helps boost the creative relevance of indigenous communities, and fingers crossed that this will increase in future features.
Although Killers of the Flower Moon has its faults, the creative depth invested in this production is undeniable. From the amazing visuals to the compelling narrative, every element contributes to this outstanding picture and the performances are among the best this year – De Niro and DiCaprio are on the top of their game but Gladstone marks herself as a worthy contender for the forthcoming awards season.
Director: Martin Scorsese, Eric Roth (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert de Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow
Runtime: 206 minutes