Killers of the Flower Moon is an achievement in cinema. Respectful, relentless, and remarkably paced, the film sees the 80-year-old master filmmaker, “Maestro Scorsese” as younger filmmakers call Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas), prove himself to be at the height of his power, not its wane.
The film isn’t about the Maestro, however. Killers of the Flower Moon tells the true story of the string of murders that plagued the Osage Nation in the 1920s. Co-leading the film alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Critters 3), is the fantastic Lily Gladstone (Certain Women, The Unknown Country) as our anchor in the Osage Nation.
Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, the new beau and eventual wife of DiCaprio’s Earnest Burkhart, who has recently finished his tour of duty in World War I and has come to work for his uncle, William “King” Hale, played by Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, Heat). Though for many filmgoers the film’s breakout star will be a new wonder, Gladstone is already an acclaimed actor among critics and filmmakers. She’s shown up for a supporting turn on Showtime’s Billions, starred in breakout indie films like Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2019), and headlined and co-wrote another film this year centered on the Indigenous experience in the United States, The Unknown Country (A performance I argue should already make her a serious contender for Best Actress at the Academy Awards). As a performer, Gladstone’s screen presence is often built on stoic glances with small adjustments which create the impression of a greater self boiling under the surface. When paired with a director and scene partners as capable as she is here, Gladstone’s performance is like watching a placid lake ripple with energy the moment it’s disturbed, revving up the charm and vulnerability whenever it’s asked of her. She’s just splendid in the role.
Playing the part of her dimwitted husband Earnest, DiCaprio is maybe the best he’s ever been, though he’s been good so often that this is more of a new legitimate answer than a clear winner. At one point, the typically coastal DiCaprio disappears so deeply into the character, it was as if Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption) or Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) had been channeled through him onto the screen, playing not just against type, but as if he’d always been of another type all together. The complexity of emotions on his face in that moment will haunt audiences long after they leave the theater.
Rounding out the main cast, Robert De Niro is on a mission to make you forget his late-era brand of paycheck films and remind you that this guy was Vito Corleone (The Godfather), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Frank Sheeran (The Irishman), and Jack Byrnes, disapproving father-in-law (Mee the Parents series). Playing King Hale, a white ally to the Osage tribe and DiCaprio’s rich, powerbroking uncle, De Niro is frightening and endearing. The source of almost all the film’s laughs comes from his frustration as a clever man cursed with explaining things to DiCaprio’s idiot Earnest. His is the most true-to-life performance in the film. If you’re white enough, male enough, and quiet enough, you’ll have met many men like him, who casually invite you into a boys’ club the moment the women or people of color shut the door behind them, and De Niro captures these men perfectly.
Outside of the three headlining stars, the cast is a collection of stars-turned-character actors, tried-and-true Indigenous actors, and local Osage non-actors. Brendan Frasier (The Mummy, The Whale) and John Lithgow (The World According to Garp, 3rd Rock from the Sun) are dueling lawyers in the film’s courtroom scenes, both taking huge swings. Scott Shepherd (The Last of Us, Bridge of Spies) plays DiCaprio’s daunting older brother. Songwriter Jason Isbell is downright incredible in his small part, and Tantoo Cardinal (Dances with Wolves, Wind River) is unforgettable as Gladstone’s bedridden mother. Everett Waller, chairman of the Osage Minerals Council, is one of the many non-actors from the Osage Reservation making their debut in this film, and he owns every scene he’s in. Finally, Jesse Plemmons (Game Night, Power of the Dog) plays Bureau of Investigations Agent Tom White in what is probably the fourth lead of the film. It’s a role that was reduced after he came aboard in order to increase the narrative agency of the Osage. While the fanatic fans (myself included) of his Game Night (2018) line reading “How does that benefit Frito Lays?” may be disappointed by his light role here, it was undoubtedly the right decision.
The cast of Killers of the Flower Moon is vast, and so are its scope and running time. At 3 hrs 26 mins, the film may seem daunting to casual moviegoers, but what may be the most surprising thing about the film is how fast it flies by. It is totally arresting as an experience, and when the film transitions to what proves to be its closing sequence, I thought “That’s it?” From the pacing I’d somehow become convinced we were only two hours in; it really does move that fast.
From the start, the score invites us on an adventure, and the camera makes sure we can’t say no. Rodrigo Prieto (Barbie, Wolf of Wall Street) shoots the Oklahoma landscapes like the Western adventures of John Ford (The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence), and uses color and framing to add a Southern Gothic tinge when thematically relevant. The film takes place over roughly a decade, and the film makes excellent use of silent film cameras and eventually real-life archival sound newsreels to move us through time. The story of Killers of the Flower Moon is so compelling because of how wide it reaches across its own moment, intertwining with the invention of insulin, the global news market, the post-Birth of a Nation (1915) KKK, Motordom, and the modern Federal Investigation. It’s a story that can only have taken place at that time, yet it’s America’s whole history in one mystery.
Where the film comes up short is in the contrast of its construction and distributor Apple’s tooting of its own horn. The film is being praised for its revolutionary embrace and inclusion of the Osage people as collaborators, as well as its restructuring to make Mollie Burkheart a larger focus. However, while Lily Gladstone rightfully commands the title of co-lead, the fact of the matter is that DiCaprio’s Earnest Burkheart maintains the lion’s share of the emotional agency and focus. This was necessary not only to get the film made and seen, but maybe even as a way in for the screenwriting team of Scorsese and Eric Roth (Forest Gump, Dune).
They use his character brilliantly to critique white culture from within, emphasizing the paternal impulse of possession and banality of unaffiliated collusion that’s at the heart of white supremacy. Yet as Christopher Cote, the Osage language consultant for the film, said to the Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet this week, “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie, and what her family experienced. But, I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people…” There’s more to the quote and it’s essential listening, but it includes spoilers for anyone who’s avoided any details on the murder mystery. Seek it out when you’re ready.
A version of this film could have existed that followed the perspective of Mollie like Joyce Choppra’s Smooth Talk (1985) follows its leading lady. Normally, it isn’t relevant or meaningful to play could-have-beens about a film trying to do something else entirely, but the Apple marketing department has been working overtime for months to prop the film up as unassailable in its handling of the Osage Nation, and it’s important to say here: it’s not unassailable, but it is remarkable. To long for more is a perfectly fine reading and critique of the film that does not dampen it, but instead shows the limit of perspective even as Scorsese takes that same limit to new heights. Arguably, this longing is what Scorsese wants you to leave with.
Killers of the Flower Moon’s crowning achievement is that, despite the focal point of Earnest, it may now be the gold standard to beat when a white man tells the story of a life experience not his own, if that means anything. It is, above all, humble and honest on all fronts. It is a clear-eyed vision of the harm visited on the Osage people, the guilt of their oppressors, and the lopsided scales of justice in America, then and now. The film is well aware of who has the power to tell the story and why. This film is a big deal because Martin Scorsese is making it, and it’s getting made because he wanted to make it. There is not yet an Indigenous director in the U.S. with enough financial or box office power to tell the story of the Osage’s troubles, and the film shows you why.
Maestro Scorsese has been capable of great works from the start, but this is the work of a twilight artist, looking back at the nation whose violent nature he has documented through its criminal and famous men for decades. There’s a lot of talk these days about how we got here and where we’re going, and this week the Maestro points a finger to the past and tells us:
We’re going where we’ve been before.
In limited release October 6th, 2023.
Wide release in the United States on October 20th, 2023.
Available to stream on Apple TV+ TBD.
For more information, head to the official Apple TV+ Killers of the Flower Moon webpage.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.