Killers of the Flower Moon opens on a Native American funeral. It is a particularly emotional affair, as they are not just burying a lost loved one, but lamenting the changes that are happening to their tribe in the wake of colonisation.
They are not sure what will come next, and they are scared. As they complete the ritual, the scene takes a dramatic shift: we see a crack in the earth begin to rumble, getting louder and louder until the entire theatre is filled with the noise, and then BANG! It bursts, shooting masses of oil high into the sky. A rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack plays, thumping along to a Native American-inspired rhythm, as the tribespeople dance ecstatically in the showers of liquid gold.
This marvellous sequence is how we are introduced to the Osage, an Indigenous tribe that developed within the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys around 700 BC, and by around 1920 were the richest people per capita in the world. The rock ‘n’ roll is a little anachronistic, sure, but it is so very Martin Scorsese (who’s been making rockumentaries as long as he has narrative features) – and I’m confident it’s a purposeful nod to the way Indigenous American music influenced that genre.
This film is the Osage story, mostly, but it is of course framed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, who has returned from war to stay with his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro). Knowing full well the value of obtaining a share of the rights to that oil, Ernest and William devise a plan to inherit it. That plan involves Ernest marrying Molly Brown (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman with full headrights (meaning she will inherit her family’s oil money with no restrictions). Except, Ernest genuinely loves Molly, and this gives him trepidation about his uncle’s schemes.
The events of the film are based on a true story, which has been documented in David Grann’s book of the same name (he’s credited as a writer on the film) – the story being that many members of the Osage tribe were murdered for their money, in what came to be known as the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Oklahoma.
Scorsese’s film adaptation is a sweeping epic, keeping a masterful balance between true crime intrigue and a sensitive, complex portrayal of Native American peoples. But it almost was something very different entirely, a film focusing on the formation of the FBI (what was then only known as the Bureau of Investigation) without much Native American representation. Thank goodness Scorsese met with the modern-day Osage tribe and reworked the script.
Can you find the wolves in this picture?
Lily Gladstone, as I’m sure will be said many times, is the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon. Her embodiment of Molly is felt in every frame, and her ability to emotionally carry scenes – whether she’s reciting complex dialogue or sitting in complete silence – will probably get her the Oscar next year.
But DiCaprio and De Niro are certainly not taking half-measures, either. Not that you’d expect them to, especially with both being long-time collaborators of Scorsese’s. DiCaprio, at 48 years, has this amazing ability to shrink and cower under De Niro’s confident and conniving Hale, so much so that he seems 20 years younger. But it only works so well due to De Niro’s commanding screen presence – something he is well practiced at, of course.
The entire cast is phenomenal, in fact – and there are a lot of players who only show up in the last quarter of the film, meaning you might be playing an internal game of ‘where-do-I-know-them-from?’ as the story moves into its conclusion. Jesse Plemons and Brendan Fraser are just two big names in the cast who, when they finally arrive, will surprise and delight you.
There’s also a rather daring cameo, which for me really sealed my opinion of Killers of the Flower Moon being one of the best films of the year. I don’t think everyone will agree, though, so be prepared for some divisive reactions!
And all throughout, the character of Molly is there at the centre of everything: a woman juggling marriage and childrearing, with a spate of murders that are linked to her family, as well as diabetes that she self-manages. It’s a surprisingly accurate portrayal of what living with the illness is like – a real rarity where the dominant trend in Hollywood is to portray chronic illness as pitiful and laden with shame.
Every frame a painting
After that amazingly evocative opening sequence with the oil, the visual delights just keep coming. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also worked with Scorsese on Silence (2016), The Irishman (2019), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), is at the top of his game here, capturing the extraordinary rural American locations, as well as ordinary locations that become stunning through his lens.
I breathed a sigh of relief seeing shot after shot has been correctly lit, with actors placed in interesting positions that make you think about what is and isn’t being said by the mainline narrative. Perhaps this is the run-off effect of having to watch so many uninspired, dimly lit, grey-washed superhero movies in the last decade – but even those personal biases aside, it would be hard not to call Killers of the Flower Moon a masterclass in filmmaking.
There is a particular scene where William Halle (De Niro) comforts a distressed Osage woman at his son’s wedding to Molly Brown. She trusts him, as do all members of the town, because he speaks their language and is always so seemingly generous. But as he approaches her, the camera takes an extremely low angle, watching him as he towers over this woman, grabbing her by the shoulders to give a squeeze of affection.
His actions speak kindness and empathy, but our perspective shows us something different. Like DiCaprio, we instinctively shrink in his presence, shuffling around uncomfortably in our seats.
When talking about a Scorsese film, you have to mention Thelma Schoonmaker, his long-time editor. Certainly, Killers of the Flower Moon wouldn’t be half as kinetic and absorbing without her masterful work in the cutting room. For a film three-and-a-half hours long, it moves along at a riveting pace, turning the traditional three-act structure into a flowing tapestry of intertwining stories.
Schoonmaker’s choices of where and how to place the scenes shot by Prieto and directed by Scorsese is crucial to the film being both an engaging bit of entertainment and a masterclass in filmmaking.
If you’re at all curious about Killers of the Flower Moon, don’t be put off by the long runtime. It is well-earned. You’ll be blown away by just how good it is.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in cinemas on 19 October