Teddy Stoddart, Engineering Design, Third Year
Director Martin Scorsese is best known for rip-roaring movies like Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), tracking the rise and inevitable fall of New York gangsters and financiers as they are tempted and then corrupted by the ambition and greed that the city has to offer. However, his latest outing Killers of the Flower Moon swaps the mean streets of the big apple for the sweeping plains of rural Oklahoma in the 1920s, home to the Osage Nation tribe.
Title cards at the start of the film announce a fantastic (and true) premise; the Osage people, a native American tribe, have been pushed and marginalised onto barren land by white settlers. However, in a twist of fate, oil is discovered under the territory; the Osage people become the wealthiest per capita in the world.
We are introduced to this world through the eyes of WWI veteran cook (and idiot) Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who finds, on returning from the war to stay with his cattle-rancher uncle Mr Hale (a conniving Robert De Niro), the Osage nation’s main town Fairfax is feverish with excitement as the oil money flows in. While working as a driver in this town he flirts with and then falls upwards into marrying Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy and dignified ‘Indian pure blood’ – their marriage further immerses him into the tribe’s world. Gladstone’s performance is stand-out, projecting dignity and intelligence through her eyes and face, a trait typified in an exchange with the verbose Ernest; ‘You know, you got nice colour skin. What colour would you say that is?’ ‘My colour.’ Gladstone and DiCaprio’s portrayal of Mollie and Ernest’s unlikely relationship is affectionate and endearing.
However, Ernest’s seemingly benevolent uncle Hale starts to obsess over the oil deeds that Mollie’s family possesses, and making sure that the inheritance ‘flows the right way’. Competing relatives begin to meet premature deaths, and Ernest’s simple nature and corruptibility – ‘I love money!’ he exclaims at one point – endangers Mollie.
The movie is at its best in these opening sequences. We are immersed in 1920s Oklahoma through vivid sound design and an all encompassing set. The world also subverts our perceptions of 1920s America – Osage tribe members wearing opulent fabrics are chauffeur driven by white men, a Chevrolet dealer begs on his knees for a sale to an Osage man. The wedding between Ernest and Mollie rivals the wedding from The Godfather (1972), and time is given for candid and funny exchanges that build our intimacy with these historically distant characters.
However, this slow burning start is also the movie’s undoing. In films like Goodfellas and The Godfather, slow and indulgent starts immerse the viewer so the chaos to follow strikes harder. Killers of the Flower Moon does not deliver on this – the plot instead creaks forward as the whole thing turns into a true-crime re-enactment. The pacing squanders our attention span and undermines the movie’s many great performances.
There was potential here for an all-time great film. Scorsese is a master of world building and chaos and other American frontier movies like There Will Be Blood (2007) prove what can be done with the genre. Furthermore, the rightful inclusion of Native Americans in the overall picture offers an escape from the greedy settler perspective via grounding in nature and ancient tradition. This film could have been an all-American classic.
But perhaps this true story was not Scorsese’s to commoditise in that way. It is based on a book, and the film adaptation was made in consultation with the present-day Osage community. Scorsese achieved heady heights of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street by tearing into subject matter that was his to play with; American financiers or Italian-American gangsters. However, in this film Scorsese is telling someone else’s story.
In terms of production value, cinematography, and fantastic actors that diligently re-enact an important historical story, this film hits a home run. But as an engaging and re-watchable movie, Killers of the Flower Moon is a swing and a miss.
Featured Image: IMDb