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October 27, 2023


written by: Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese
produced by: Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Martin Scorsese & Daniel Lupi
directed by: Martin Scorsese
rated: R (for violence, some grisly images, and language)
runtime: 206 min.
U.S. release date: October 20, 2023 (theaters)


Director Martin Scorsese re-teams with screenwriter Eric Roth (“The Irishman”) for “Killers of the Flower Moon”, to co-write a loose adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction novel of the same name. While the full title of the book continues with The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI”, Scorsese’s movie is more focused on the former rather than the latter, and the epic story of a devastating tragedy in American history that occurred over 100 years ago. It’s a more engrossing side to the entire story and Scorsese focuses on the dark details of the murders that occurred in the 1920s, which is well within his wheelhouse considering how many of his previous films have delved into the violence, power, and greed in America’s past and present.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is yet another epic endeavor in which Scorsese explores the darkness of humanity. This time it’s the genocidal conspiracy that plagued the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma due to the sins of white men. It wasn’t enough that the white man ran the Osage people out of their land (in Missouri and Louisiana) in the 1870s and relegated them to Oklahoma, thinking the rocky and rough terrain was barely fertile and offered very little to anyone. When oil exploded from the earth where the Osage people were relocated, it was a surprise to all. Soon enough, they became the wealthiest people per capita in the United States at that time. The white residents were enraged at the wealth the land brought the Osage, so in their minds, something had to be done. That’s when Osage people started disappearing and when they did turn up it was obvious they were murdered. It’s the classic sin of envy, leading to coveting what someone else has.



As the movie opens, we witness an emotional Osage ceremony showing elders committed to burying the traditions they’ve lived by for decades, knowing the current generation (and the one soon following) will have to assimilate to the way of the white man in order to endure. Scorsese follows this with a scene of oil gushing from the land and Native Americans dancing around as it sprays the northeastern Oklahoma sky. Set to the luring and contagious music composed by the late Robbie Robertson (a frequent Scorsese collaborator, who delivers a beautiful and haunting score here), the moment kicks off the action that will serve as the source of contention throughout the movie’s story.

Despite the wealth that the oil brought the Osage populace, the white folk still found a way to control what wasn’t theirs. Bankers of the time made it so the only way they would manage any financial affairs for the Osage is if they declared themselves “incompetent”, which would then state in writing that they needed a white guardian to manage their money.

Around 1919, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from serving in World War I (primarily as a cook), arriving in the town of Fairfax, right in the Osage Nation, where his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) resides. Ernest’s younger brother, Byron (Scott Shepherd) lives on Hale’s vast estate as well, a place that started out as a cattle ranch. Hale is the kind of prominent figure that everyone knows about – in Fairfax and the surrounding area, be they Osage or white folk – one who wears many hats to have the power of influence in more than one area.



Preferring to be called “King” by anyone who knows him (even Ernest and Byron), he not only plays the role of reserve sheriff and somewhat political boss, but it’s most important to him that everyone sees him as a friend to the Osage people. He speaks their language and comes across as a benefactor, but we know differently. That could be because King is played by De Niro, but it also could be that at this point in American history, when it comes to interaction with Native Americans, any rich white man could not be trusted.

Ernest is a talkative charmer who freely admits to his brother and King that all he’s interested in is money and he doesn’t care what kind of job he lands. Taking Ernest under his wing and playing to his greed, King hatches a plan to acquire control of the oil-rich land from the Osage people while convincing Ernest and Byron to get involved. King sets Ernest up as a chauffeur in town, primarily driving around wealthy Osage women and he points him out to one in particular, Molly Kyle (Lilly Gladstone). King maintains a cordial front amongst the Osage while secretly plotting their demise to see the headrights to their land come to him. Since he knows Mollie and her family, King finds them an easy target.



Despite some initial hesitance on Mollie’s part, Ernest eventually wins her over and the two get married. This provides a legal path to the headrights for King. All he has to do is orchestrate the killing of the rest of Mollie’s family, so all of their shares go to her and in turn Ernest and inevitably him. Suspicions arise when Mollie’s younger sister, Minnie (Jillian Dion) dies from a curious “wasting illness” and after their older sister, Anna Brown (a wonderful Cara Jade Myers) is killed in cold blood, Molly seeks outside help, while Minnie’s husband, Bill Smith (Jason Isbell) begins asking around town. Anna’s killing is followed by other murders which would become known as the “Reign of Terror”, eventually gaining the attention of BOI (that’s Bureau of Investigation, a precursor to the FBI) agent, Tom White (Jesse Plemons), who arrives in Fairfax and leads an investigation into the mysterious murders. A weak-minded coward, Ernest easily succumbs to his uncle’s insidious machinations and soon becomes complicit in making his already ill wife even worse to the point of near death.

The first two hours of “Killers of the Flower Moon” follows the fast courtship between Ernest and Mollie and while the structure of the storyline is compelling and the performances are engaging, something feels off between these two. Gladstone plays Mollie as a soulful, observant woman who is well aware of how white folk see her kind and at first, she seemingly sees right through Ernest. It’s obvious to her Ernest is interested in her money, the same as other white men are interested in her sisters. But, it’s never quite clear what it is beyond his handsome looks that interest Mollie. There’s just not enough on screen to make us believe that Mollie trusts him, knowing full well that marriage will permit him access to her fortune. I was never convinced that she trusted him or why.

While the relationship between Ernest and Mollie is at the movie’s forefront, the story also examines how various members of the Osage community are killed without investigation, including Mollie’s gregarious sister, Anna Brown. It may be Native American land, but white men control the narrative, with Hale hiring hitmen to carry out the dirty work, relying on favors and demands, and handing out payments, all to achieve his goal.

Many of these shifty supporting characters are curiously played by real-life singer/songwriter and musicians. Making his acting debut, Pete Yorn plays Acie Kirby, one of the men hired to murder Mollie’s sisters. Sturgill Simpson plays Henry Grammer, a local bootlegger and cowboy. Veteran harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite plays Alvin Reynolds, another local, not a criminal but someone who speaks to Plemons’ Tom White since he witnessed some of what transpired the night Anna Brown was killed. Jack White even has a brief cameo, alongside Scorsese’s expected cameo (more on that later). I’d be interested to know why these musicians were cast as these characters. They’re good and they work, but was there a specific casting call for insurgent country/blues musicians?



The aforementioned Isbell is a musician with some previous acting experience and his performance as Bill Smith is great. The camera subtly introduces him with suspicion, indicating he’s one to keep an eye on and Isbell plays him as someone who could possibly have ulterior motives with Mollie’s sisters and her family. But then that’s subverted when we’re told his character is doing his own asking around town about Anna Brown’s death. His best scene however is a quiet and quick conversation that he has with Ernest in Smith’s living room. Isbell’s Smith has a calm and curious demeanor as he sits across a squirmy DiCaprio’s Ernest (who’s wracked with internal anxiety and guilt due to his complicity in these murders) and in only a few words it communicates that there’s at least one local white guy who’s on to Ernest and his behavior.

The investigation by White kicks in during the movie’s third hour, which is also when it is something of a court room drama. We get more of the great Pat Healy during this time, who plays John Burger another investigator who has a great deadpan presence, seeing right through all the white perpetrators. This is also when White convinces Ernest to testify against his uncle and the weakling is grilled by lawyers on both sides, Brendan Fraser (going distractingly big) plays Hale’s attorney, W. S. Hamilton, and John Lithgow plays Prosecutor Peter Leaward. It’s a pleasure to see these actors show up, but this part of the movie convinced me that maybe this material deserved a mini-series over at Apple TV+ (the movie was produced by Apple Original Films and Paramount Pictures) to fully flesh out what transpired.

Yes, it does seem baffling to say that a movie that is already quite long could use more time, but it’s true and most of the time could’ve been given to the Osage people. At times during the movie, we do get a voice-over narration from Gladstone’s Mollie, reflecting on the events we’re witnessing. Gladstone’s performance is tremendous and she’s by far the wounded hear of the movie. More from her would certainly have been welcome.



As expected considering DiCaprio and De Niro typically deliver their best work when collaborating with Scorsese, the two award-winning actors are both great here. They are both essentially doing what they’re mostly known for doing – DiCaprio excels at playing dislikable characters albeit ones that have unmistakable charm, but here his face often contorts to a Billy Bob Thornton circa “Sling Blade” level, while De Niro smugly smirks his way through the story with nefarious undertones. Granted, they are cast a little old for these characters – with Ernest being in his late 20s and Hale in his mid-40s during these actual events, but it’s quite possible that such a story probably wouldn’t get made into a movie without these two actors (and Scorsese) involved.

The movie concludes with a radio show epilogue summarizing the story of the Osage murders that were performed live as they used to be during the 30s and 40s. The show has voice actors (the aforementioned White uncomfortably using Injun voice, alongside Larry Fessenden) depicting the events, coming across like a comforting Prairie Home Companion episode, capping off an overall wholly unsettling story even more unsettling. Then Scorsese comes out as the show’s producer and essentially reads the kind of summation that we would typically see on the screen as text, like an obituary, detailing what became of William Hale, Ernest Burkhart, and Mollie Burkhart. This may seem a bit jarring at first, but it is fitting considering how true crime stories were told back then. There’s also irony in this closing, considering the FBI financially funded these true crime radio shows with Hoover wanting to show the nation what a great job his investigators were doing.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” often lingers on uncomfortable moments for long periods of screen time, indulging in the movie’s length, and delivering many scenes that emphasize what we already know. It’s almost as if Scorsese doesn’t trust viewers to follow what’s going on and wants to hold us captive to witness the uncomfortable actions on screen, but then again that’s been his modus operandi. That being said, the movie feels more thorough and meticulous than it does bloated and excessive.

Still, as expected with Scorsese, the film is impeccably made with standout production design by Jack Fist (“The Tree of Life” and “The Revenant”) and spot-on costume work by Jaqueline West (“Dune” and “The Revenant”). The director is working with an impressive cast across the board who provide complex nuanced performances. Although he’s working once again with cinematographer Roberto Prieto (who lensed the director’s last three features) and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, it’s clear we see more of Prieto’s work here due to the three-and-a-half-hour length. That’s not to say that the Oscar-winning Schoonmaker doesn’t deliver the excellence we expect, it’s just that she’s taking a different approach here, using fewer cuts to allow Prieto’s camera to remain fixed on character expressions or rest on the Osage landscape.

The trailer and marketing for “Killers of the Flower Moon” make it seem like a thriller. It would be if each step in this story wasn’t so telegraphed. There’s no mystery as to who’s having the killing done here. So, because of that, this story is more of a beat-by-beat account of a predominately unknown tragedy.

David Grann’s book isn’t the definitive account of these events, but it’s the most recent and it is quite detailed and informative. Scorsese’s work here increased my interest to read Grann’s book and I know it’s cliche to say “the book is better”, but it will certainly provide you with a more well-rounded look at the people and places involved in this tragedy.



RATING: ***1/2



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