By Ben Konuch
“There might be some insurrection for a while. But then people forget that. They don’t remember and they don’t care. It will be another ordinary everyday tragedy.”
Martin Scorsese’s newest film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” is by no means an easily accessible film to watch. Its runtime is close to three and a half hours, it holds a firm R rating and deals with some of the bleakest subject matter I’ve seen in a major Hollywood production.
Yet in spite of all these factors, and in part because of them, Scorsese weaves together a monument of an often-forgotten American history of deceit, death, greed and exploitation that cost dozens of Native American lives and allowed real-life monsters to escape their due justice.
While race relations through history remains a sensitive subject in many circles, the true story that “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells does not aim to be controversial or political. The film simply tells the truth, as shockingly twisted and heartbreaking as it really is. You may disagree with its broader implications, and Scorses gives you that room, but it demands that first you must at least stare into the shadows of the real events to observe the pain and evil that truly transpired.
The film follows the real-life events of the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe that was forced to relocate from their ancestral territories in Kansas to a section of land given as a reservation in Oklahoma. What the government never anticipated, however, was that the Osage discovered oil on this land. As a result of previous negotiations, the Osage retained the mineral and land rights for their territory and benefited from great wealth, but with this wealth came those from all corners of America looking for their cut of this new Indian gold.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” follows one of those men named Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he returns to America after World War I and finds himself in Osage territory to gain his fortune with his uncle and brother. His uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), is well-connected and well–respected by the Osage as a public figure and leader of the community, but as the film unfolds, William slowly begins to show his true colors as a liar and a killer.
William engulfs Ernest into an increasingly complex web of deceptions, manipulations and murder all to secure the fortunes of the Osage people, even at the expense of Ernest’s Osage wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and her entire family.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” contains unflinchingly brutal acts of violence and malice that can be hard to watch, even when the film doesn’t make them overly graphic. The murders that are committed by William, Ernest and the rest are especially brutal due to the calloused coldness that accompanies them. White men are shown befriending Osage over weeks and months only to shoot them in the back of the head and leave their bodies by the side of the road as if it’s nothing. We see men killing in-laws without batting an eyelash while lying to the face of the family that they’re supposed to love.
It’s especially hard to stomach due to the lies and manipulations that are paired with these murders, as the wolves in sheep’s clothing get closer and closer to the Osage fortune no matter how many lambs they have to slaughter to get there.
With that said, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is not a fast-paced film. Its narrative spans decades and while its focus is on Ernest, Mollie and William, the story it weaves envelops dozens of characters. The film is heavy on dialogue, and this could easily be a hindrance if it weren’t for the phenomenal performances of every cast member present.
DiCaprio plays his role as the wolf in hiding masterfully, painting the subtle, vile picture of a man twisted by evil but denying it to himself. In contrast, De Niro channels the absolute wickedness of William Hale with thinly veiled by niceties and civility, giving rise to a character on screen that feels like a ticking time bomb that could explode in unpredictable ways at any time.
Yet perhaps the greatest performance, and the soul of the film, comes from Lily Gladstone, who provides a frighteningly grounded depiction of grief and love. As Mollie slowly loses every family member that she loves while becoming more afraid of the very man who is supposed to protect her, we see the turmoil and the pain portrayed with heartbreaking sincerity.
Without her heart grounding this film, “Killers of the Flower Moon” could have easily been just another crime film from Scorsese in the vein of “The Departed” or “Goodfellas,” but as we see the horrors of mankind’s greed unfold in her eyes, the story develops an intensely emotional core.
Not only is this a story worth telling, but it’s one that “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells with care. Filming primarily took place on location in the Osage land where the events transpired with permission from the Osage Nation, who were deeply involved in the production of the film. The Osage Nation provided cultural insights and historical input to better inform filmmakers how to tell their story accurately and effectively, and supporting roles were also played by members of the Osage Nation and surrounding tribes as well.
When all the parts of the whole fit together, “Killers of the Flower Moon” creates a horrifying and mesmerizing exposé on the greed and coldness of early 20th century America that also serves as a caution to not allow history and its repeated wrongs to be forgotten. However, a slightly bloated runtime and a few awkward filmmaking choices in perspective shifts weigh down the film slightly. While this keeps “Killers of the Flower Moon” from being a masterpiece, it still cements itself as a great work of harrowing storytelling of a history that should never again be left in the shadows.
I give “Killers of the Flower Moon” an 8.5/10
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is now showing in theaters
Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and an A&E writer for Cedars. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and hanging out with crazy MuKappa friends.
Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures