Killers of the Flower Moon - a tragic story that's well told, even if it does take its time.
4 out of 5
“Can you find the wolves in this picture?” Uneducated Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is reading aloud to himself from a children’s book on the advice of his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro); the older man thinks it might help his nephew acclimatise to the predominantly indigenous American town that he has returned to. It’s not the most subtle of clues as to what Killers of the Flower Moon (based on David Grann’s book) will be about: there are real wolves hiding in plain sight in Martin Scorsese’s latest film, and they really aren’t that hard to spot. They’re white.
Some background to this true story. In 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, a series of unsolved murders amongst the indigenous Osage Nation suggested there was a grand plan to eradicate all members of the tribe who had "headrights", i.e, the legal control of the oil rich lands they lived upon. Prior to many of the killings, there were other devious attempts to control them, as many tribe members were declared legally incompetent, requiring them to have a white guardian to monitor their funds. Suspicious ‘accidental’ deaths began to plague them via poisoned alcohol, mysterious ‘wasting’ diseases, and an alarming amount of ‘suicides.’
The film revolves around William King Hale (Robert De Niro), a cattle baron and political tycoon, his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who arrives in Osage County to work for his uncle, and Ernest’s wife Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone).
In the first scene between the uncle and the nephew, the two discuss everything from Ernest’s wartime experiences to the type of women he is attracted to, as well as the oil boom in the region. This scene sets the foundation of the film as it reveals a lot regarding who these two characters are, their relationship to one another, and their place in the world.
Burkhart woos Mollie Kyle Cobb (Lily Gladstone), and they soon marry, having children. But her condition as a diabetic begins to flare up, limiting her. Shortly after their marriage, her sister Anna is found murdered right after another tribe member is shot and killed in a similar manner. Another sister suffers from wasting disease, whose husband then weds her last remaining sister Reta. Both of them are blown up by explosives placed beneath their home. Despite the hiring of a private investigator who promptly disappears, and a local townsperson tasked with going to Washington, D.C. to request help solve the murders, it seems the Osage are on the verge of extermination until a federal law enforcement agent, Tom White (Jesse Plemons) arrives with an undercover team.
De Niro hasn’t given such a complex, funny, and deeply disturbing performance in a long while. His King talks to Ernest as if to a son, telling him in more or less subtle terms how things are to be done in these parts. He’s also a master at saying one thing to mean another, making for moments when DiCaprio gets to be at his best: confused, but too insecure to say so, as vulnerable as in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, a performance that marked a real return to form. King referring to “pure blood” Native people doesn’t mean much to Ernest, but it also takes him by surprise. In his language, King walks a fine, confusing line between loving the Osages and describing them as obstacles toward his goal of mass estate ownership. Here’s a man at peace with his split personality because perhaps, to him, it isn’t split at all. Everything is a justifiable means to an end, whether those means consist of learning the Osage language and grieving their losses, or murdering members of the community. Playing this psychopathic character completely straight, De Niro baffles the audience, too. The effect is one of whiplash and cognitive dissonance while Scorsese takes his time, over the first hour, to slowly but surely let the horror creep onto the frame. Almost without knowing it, King’s genocidal master plan has revealed itself, seeping into the narrative like poison.
In supporting roles are Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser as Hale’s attorney, John Lithgow as the Prosecutor Peter Leaward, and Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother. They all stand out with their performances.
With a runtime of 206 minutes, the film does test your patience. Having said that, the last act keeps you engrossed, and the denouement is certainly creative.
Overall, with high production values, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s brilliant camera work captures the era, locales, and performances to perfection, and Robbie Robertson’s haunting score, keeps you glued to the screen.
In a somewhat controversial scene, Scorsese steps out of time and space for the film’s penultimate sequence. On a ’50s-style stage, a radio show about what happened after the then-nascent FBI finally intervened is being recorded. The tone is odd, between irony and pity, an appropriate climax for what has been an uncanny, disturbing film. Of course, there is no real conclusion. In the years since the Osage affair, the plight of Indigenous people has barely been addressed. Then something both devastating and curious occurs: the filmmaker himself steps onto the stage and narrates the rest of the story. Perhaps Scorsese felt compelled to show how he understood that the oppression of Native people goes far beyond his film, and could hardly be captured in three hours and 26 minutes.