Once upon a time, the greatest film directors were lauded as auteurs. The masters of cinema left indelible imprints on their works, much like book authors (thus “auteur”). Their movies are so visually and thematically exceptional that you know when you’re watching a film by Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, John Ford, etc. Those days are, by and large, long over.
But a handful of younger directors carried on making bold, ambitious, uncompromising films into the 21st century, notably Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, and, of course, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) is one of only two “newer” directors who can rightfully be counted among the top 10 of all time, the other being Francis Ford Coppola. So, fortunately for us he’s still here and still crafting superior films at 80 years old.
His latest and which he also co-wrote, Killers of the Flower Moon, clocks in at a lengthy yet breezy three-and-a-half hours. Part There Will Be Blood, part Chinatown, it takes place in 1920s Oklahoma and is based on a true story. The film follows Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a handsome, half-witted World War I veteran, his uncle and local bigwig William King Hale (Robert De Niro), and his Native American wife Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone).
Mollie is of the Osage Nation, on whose reservation vast quantities of oil are discovered. The irony! Although as with real life lottery winners, the American Dream turns nightmarish when members of the tribe suddenly become the “richest people in the world.” A series of deaths occur under suspicious circumstances, although no investigations are held and no one seems particularly concerned.
By marriage and/or murder, everyone seems to be trying to secure their own piece of the black gold pie. A moral sickness has gripped this small town, where wealthy Natives and wannabe wealthy whites live side by side. It’s a murder mystery without a mystery, as it’s clear from Scene 1 who is the master conspirator orchestrating the nefarious deeds.
Ernest and Mollie’s union begins innocently enough, but functioning as both a loving husband and a faithful nephew to his benefactor proves to be impossible. After the second of Mollie’s three sisters dies, an effort is finally made by the tribe to determine who is behind the disturbing events in their community. They hire a private investigator and send a representative to Washington, but these initiatives are not fruitful.
When Mollie’s third and last sister dies and she is on the verge of death herself due to an insulin/poison concoction administered by Ernest, she makes a trip to the capital and appeals directly to the president. The FBI is duly dispatched, led by Breaking Bad’s Jesse Plemons, and things begin to unravel for William and company in short order. A trial begins but is put on hold when it’s revealed that William’s lawyer is also Ernest’s, who agreed to testify against his uncle in exchange for immunity.
The lawyer, played by Brendan Fraser, gives Ernest the business in a room full of co-conspirators – everyone from the doctors to the sheriff to Mollie’s KKK guardian are in on it – and Ernest faces his Moment of Truth. He arrives at a decision, suffers a personal tragedy involving a character we have no emotional attachment to, and faces a second Moment of Truth.
Even if the film doesn’t feature a brilliant screenplay like for Chinatown or an all-time great performance like in There Will Be Blood, the story is fascinating and the directing, as expected, is first-rate. Perhaps the movie’s greatest strength is its authentic recreation of a time and place in America’s heartland which existed uneasily between the lawlessness of the Old West and the civilization of the New West.
It’s a story of the nation and the forces which shaped it – money, greed, power, race, violence – resulting in the murders of dozens of Natives for the crime of being wealthy and non-white. The director’s trademark dark humor is there, as well. Killers of the Flower Moon is not top-tier Scorsese, but it’s one of his best since Goodfellas and a pleasure in this age of movie pablum.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone
Runtime: 206 minutes
Country: United States