Killers of the Flower Moon

M, 206 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The latest movie from living legend, Martin Scorsese, brings together two of the actors that he has made famous, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, but the character at the centre of Killers of the Flower Moon is a calm, softly spoken First Nations woman played by Lily Gladstone. It’s a big step for a filmmaker who has built his reputation on compelling stories that dissect the contradictions of American masculinity.

From his early breakthrough films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy about violent machismo and celebrity culture, to later work like The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has made movies that critique US society and the conflict and corruption at its very foundations.

The brutal violence depicted in some films has generated controversy. Yet every now and then, he has ventured a film with a child protagonist, like Kundun about the young Dalai Lama, and Hugo, a gorgeous fantasy about a boy with the job of winding up the clocks at a train station in Paris.

And since The Last Waltz there has been the occasional music documentary or music video, with which Scorsese has been able to indulge his love of rock and pop. The terrific soundtrack on Killers of the Flower Moon is dedicated to its composer the late Robbie Robertson, formerly of The Band, who was of First Nations ancestry.

Sweeping prairie vistas and a thumping score, as the US tries to leave its frontier culture behind

With broad, sweeping vistas of prairie dotted with oil rigs and grazing cattle accompanied by a thumping score, the film begins with a ceremonial burial that releases spurting crude oil from the ground. Late in the 1890s, the true-life event was a windfall for the people of the Osage County in the Midwest, bringing them astonishing wealth. During the early 20th century, the Osage were for a time the richest social group in the country.

They enjoyed luxuries beyond their wildest dreams.  The largesse available from land that earned its owners lucrative royalties unfortunately also attracted a raft of opportunistic low-life into the community who sought to marry Osage women to set themselves up to inherit large sums of money. For newly arrived war veteran, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) his marriage to Mollie (Gladstone), gave him the means to buy a red Buick Roadster and kit himself in fine, fashionable three-piece suits. At least he had married for love.

At the time it was becoming apparent that there were a growing number of murders taking place, somewhere between 20 or over a hundred took place there in the 1920s-1930s. The situation attracted the attention of federal authorities who sent a team of investigators headed by former Texas ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons).

Killers of the Flower Moon is based on history documented in the nonfiction book of the same name by Robert Grann. Another story about the struggle it has been for the US to leave its frontier culture behind, it became a best-seller in 2017. The screenplay is a collaboration between Scorsese and Eric Roth.

A story of Indigenous dispossession into the mainstream, with slow and deliberate pacing that won’t sit well with all

A woman of particular interest to the Bureau of Investigation team was full-blood Osage Indian, Mollie Burkhart, Ernie’s wife, who is receiving treatment for diabetes. Her two sisters were murdered, their elderly mother has just passed, and Mollie remains poorly despite the insulin prescribed.

Eventually, the plans that have been orchestrated by local rancher William Hale (Robert De Niro as the real-life historical figure) to kill off Indian women to get at their land inheritance and become rich become clear. De Niro is in full flight as the villain here, a local benefactor who builds roads, and sets up schools and hospitals, while orchestrating plans to kill people off for their oil rights. De Niro has been in too many low-grade movies since his work with Scorsese for me to take very seriously now. DiCaprio’s performance as a loving, dim-witted husband is superior.

With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese has brought a very important story of Indigenous dispossession to the mainstream audience, but the slow and deliberate pacing won’t sit that well with all. Clearly setting out to make some strong points and focus a forensic eye on the grim details about the destruction of First Nations lives and culture, but at more than three hours’ run time it is a big ask. Despite the surprise in store in the closing coda.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 Ocrober 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes