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Killers of the Flower Moon review: Scorsese’s monumental new epic

Robert De Niro sits in a car and talks to Leonardo DiCaprio, who leans against it.
Killers of the Flower Moon
“Killers of the Flower Moon is very much an example of the aging master who dug a grave for crime opuses with The Irishman.”
Pros
  • Scorsese in his brutal Irishman groove
  • DiCaprio as you've never seen him before
  • David Grann's devastating history lesson brought alive
Cons
  • Weak bladders will burst
  • Short attention spans will drift

“Your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends.” So said Henry Hill in Goodfellas, right before one of those friends — the one played with a tiger’s grin of ill intentions by Robert De Niro — tries to trick him into a one-way trip to Florida. Hill’s words of warning (a rat’s guide to not being eaten by the other rats) echo through the Martin Scorsese canon of greed, betrayal, and death. And they take on a freshly damning historical context in the director’s monumental new movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, in which a string of slayings in 1920s Oklahoma becomes a microcosm for America’s oldest project, its original sin: the genocide of the indigenous. The murderers come with smiles here, too. They come with the same smile.

The story is damnably, outrageously true. Scorsese and his co-writer, Eric Roth, adapted it from David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name, a nonfiction page-turner that reads like crackerjack fiction. Pulling you quickly through a breadth of research with his crisp prose, Grann laid out the early-20th-century fortune and misfortune of the Osage Nation, made rich overnight by the discovery of oil, then hounded by an endless parade of white interlopers hoping to wrest the money away. When prominent members of the tribe began turning up dead, it was clear that the tactics had escalated beyond even the shadiest legal maneuvers to cold-blooded murder.

Killers of the Flower Moon — Official Trailer

The conspiracy would draw federal agents to Osage County, and lead to the first major case of J. Edgar Hoover’s recently formed FBI. Grann’s bestseller is largely built around that investigation, led by a one-time Texas ranger named Tom White. White is a character in the movie, too — a stoic agent played by Jesse Plemons. But he’s far from the central figure, and doesn’t show up for a good long while. Scorsese and Roth have applied a different structure to these events, forgoing the murder-mystery procedural angle in favor of something more intimate and eccentric: They’ve reframed the story around the relationship between Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), whose Osage family is directly targeted by the killers, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WWI veteran who starts as her chauffeur and then becomes her husband.

It’s Ernest’s wealthy uncle, William King Hale (De Niro) — fabled “friend of the Osage” and a folksy white cattleman and philanthropist — who plays matchmaker. He plants the idea of a courtship during a long, insinuating conversation between Scorsese’s two regular muses, one burying his inner Max Cady under a twinkling veneer of dandyish civility, the other playing much denser than usual. Ernest, we quickly see, is too dumb or too greedy or too craven to realize that he’s being gently pulled into something bigger than himself, something nefarious and far-reaching. He’s being initiated into a plan.

Robert De Niro sits in a barber chair and talks to Jesse Plemons standing over him
Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in Killers of the Flower Moon. Apple/Paramount / Apple/Paramount

That plan unfolds gradually, as Scorsese threads the romance of Ernest and Mollie — who genuinely fall in love, against her better judgment and regardless of ulterior motives — through the expanding horror of what happens to her family, beginning with the disappearance of her sister, Anna (Cara Jade Myers). At 200-plus minutes, Killers of the Flower Moon takes its time, but doesn’t drag. How could it, with editor Thelma Schoonmaker once more shaping the flowing path of conspiratorial incident, like a river winding steadily and unstoppably across open country? She and Scorsese tease out the evil in a different way than Grann did; rather than offer a string of shocking revelations, they make us privy to the dark motives and then watch as they’re almost casually pursued by a growing ensemble of lowlifes, a rumble of guitar signaling constant danger ahead.

Dabbling in the trappings, at least and at last, of cowboy cinema (believe it or not, this is Marty’s first Western of sorts), Scorsese sketches landscapes from one end of the widescreen frame to the other, and sweeps his camera over a ranch dotted with bovine as far as the eye can see. But his vision is not romantic. It glorifies neither outlaw country, nor the federal agents reigning it in: Though the 10-gallon lawman White and his posse do eventually arrive to take the Wild out of the West, they’re much too late to save the day. If loads of Westerns are really about the death of an older America, Killers of the Flower Moon extends that elegiac focus to the slow-motion massacre that’s defined our country from the bitter start. Bookending rituals, opening and closing the movie, make it clear where the film’s sympathies forever lie.

Mollie — shattered by compounding losses, sick with heartache and disease — is the movie’s grieving conscience. Gladstone, who made her breakthrough playing an achingly vulnerable cowgirl in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, cuts through the corrupt dimwit chatter with as little as a weary stare. But just as history and scoundrels conspired to diminish Mollie, so does the movie strategically sideline her. Those who objected to Anna Paquin bearing mute witness in Scorsese’s last movie, the similarly fatalistic The Irishman, might lodge similar complaints against a film that doesn’t tell this story entirely or even predominantly from the Osage vantage. It’s possible to imagine another version by, about, and more explicitly for an indigenous audience.

Lily Gladstone and a group of other women sit around a celebration.
Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. Apple/Paramount / Apple/Paramount

Of course, one of the trickiest things about Scorsese’s work is that the moral perspective often doesn’t belong to the central characters. He is forever fascinated by the weak and culpable, and risks charges of valorizing scoundrels by getting into their heads and bending movies around their vices, their flaws, their mistakes. Killers of the Flower Moon is classic Scorsese in that respect — and it’s a shape it most clearly adheres to in the film’s long final act of familiar snitching and courtroom reckoning, making it a kissing cousin to the backstabbing back stretches of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. In other ways, this is very much the aging master who dug a grave for crime opuses with The Irishman. He brings that same depth of detail, that same patient deliberation, and that focus on a cog of violent history, slowly enveloped by his guilt, in multiple senses of the word.

Killers of the Flower Moon is, at last, a great bellow of outrage echoing through the void of Ernest Burkhart, one of this director’s most pathetic, interesting specimens, a human jellyfish complicit in his complacency. DiCaprio, teeth browned and intellect dimmed like an expiring light bulb, makes Ernest a simple man of simple desires without simplifying the contradiction within him. Can his love be real when it puts no barrier between him and unspeakable evil? By its quietly devastating final minutes, Scorsese has whittled down the vast, unfathomable scope of his historical epic to a close-up portrait of moral cowardice at its clammiest. No sympathy for the devil here.

Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters everywhere Friday, October 20, and comes to Apple TV+ at a later date.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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