“Killers of the Flower Moon” is the latest film from acclaimed director Martin Scorsese. The movie is based on a true story about the abuses against the Osage tribe by white businessmen led by William King Hale (Robert De Niro). After the Osage strike it rich by discovering oil in their land, they’re manipulated by Hale, who moonlights as their ally so that whites can take their oil money by marrying and secretly murdering them. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s dim nephew who returns from World War I. Hale sees an opportunity within young Ernest and marries him to an intelligent Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). However, Ernest unexpectedly falls in love with Mollie, and as the film goes on he becomes torn between loyalty to his uncle and wife.
When we see “A Martin Scorsese Picture” on a poster, it’s natural to expect nothing short of excellence. This is the mastermind behind “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver.” However, we must resist the urge to blindly love everything he does because of his track record, or any great filmmaker’s track record for that matter. In the case of Killers, which has been hailed as a “masterpiece,” I can’t help but feel it’s not being evaluated objectively. If this was directed by an unknown, it would receive far more mixed reception. The truth of the matter is that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is good, not great.
At three-and-a-half hours, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is… tough. I like to say that if a film is going to be longer than “The Godfather” (3 hours), you better earn it. The Lord of the Rings films do this. “The Godfather Part II” does this. “Schindler’s List” does this. Killers doesn’t. It’s not 206 minutes out of necessity, but out of an auteur’s indulgence. When he first wrote the film with Eric Roth, the script was a detective thriller from the FBI’s perspective, which is how the book of the same name was structured. This would’ve made for a faster, tighter film, but because Scorsese and DiCaprio felt Ernest was the “heart” of the story instead of Tom White (the main FBI agent played by the great Jesse Plemons), Roth and Scorsese tore the film “inside out.” In effect, there’s no intrigue or suspense moving the story along. Also, Ernest simply isn’t interesting. He’s too dimwitted to have the complexity of emotions required for a morally conflicted character. I couldn’t care less about him because he didn’t have the intelligence to reflect upon his flaws, and therefore there wasn’t any interesting character development.
After a while, I just stopped caring about all the characters, especially Ernest. This is generally due to the runtime. Mollie was an interesting character in theory, but the film often forgot about her throughout the second half due to its bloated subplots elsewhere. There were far too many scenes of Ernest meeting up with a new character, asking him to complete a task, and then we watch him complete a task we’ve seen a million times before. The first 2 hours are just that formula repeated to death, except with breaks for De Niro and Gladstone to inject life into the film with their acting chops (we’ll get to them later, as they’re the best parts of the film).
Even the last 90 minutes, which are superior to the first 2 hours, could have been trimmed. Without spoiling anything, the last act has DiCaprio’s character make a decision that resolves the conflict, take back that decision, and make it all over again. Those are 20 minutes we don’t need. It’s not as if the film is strictly dedicated to historical accuracy — De Niro is 30 years older than the real Hale was at that time. Then the movie concludes with the most insulting ending Scorsese has ever crafted. Again, without spoilers, he ends the film with a massive exposition dump detailing what would take about 20-30 minutes more to tell, and which are also far more compelling than the first half of the movie. The exposition concludes with an embarrassingly self-aggrandizing Scorsese cameo in which he essentially looks right at the camera to proclaim, “hey look everybody, it’s me!” The message of the film is too important for that kind of ego, and his appearance detracts from said importance. The most aggravating part of this ending, however, is the fact that it essentially says, “We had three-and-a-half hours and $200 million to tell our story but we still couldn’t finish the whole thing, so here’s Scorsese to verbally rush through the ending at you.”
And yes, to those who’ve seen the film, I’m well aware that the point of the final scene was to illustrate how Americans didn’t take the atrocities committed against the Osage seriously. That’s a powerful and necessary message, but instead of cramming it into an exposition dump at the last second, they should’ve made an epilogue to complete the characters’ stories and, more importantly, properly explore that theme. Scorsese should have cut an hour out of the film to 1) make a smoother runtime and 2) give room for a different, extended ending. That way, we’re not insulted by his inability to make a reasonably long movie and we can also absorb the message properly.
Runtime aside, what works about this film? Despite my crotchety ranting, I was never bored during “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Yes, I was disconnected, but I never felt sleepy, and that’s due to the visuals, performances, and, as always with Scorsese’s films, Thelma Schoonmaker’s magic editing. She always knows what shot to place where to make the scene more interesting, and it’s hard to pinpoint her exact style; she’s just damn good at her job. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto is also masterful. The landscapes are nothing short of breathtaking and his lighting brings a truly haunting atmosphere that puts you in the trapped position of the Osage people.
No element better makes you feel the dread and oppression of the Osage better than Lily Gladstone’s performance. Her work is far from flashy, instead expressing Mollie’s emotions through eyes and slight mannerisms. It’s a subdued performance that immediately makes the audience connect to Mollie because of how real she feels. Therefore, when tragedies start befalling her and her family, it’s all the more devastating, especially in one scene in which Gladstone releases this raw, heart-breaking scream that Mollie had been holding in throughout the movie. I’d say Mollie, independently of Ernest, is the true heart of the film.
De Niro was just as excellent. I legitimately believe this is his best role since “Raging Bull.” He instills the fear of God in you, playing Hale with a charming outer shell juxtaposed by a spine-chilling evil beneath his eyes. This is a truly transformative performance, the likes of which he hasn’t done since his early days working with Scorsese. I never saw De Niro, only this destructive soul willing to kill anyone in his path without batting an eye. As long as he’s in a position of power, you feel like no one else is safe, and his subtly vicious performance provides the tension which the script failed to build.
I’m shocked that I’m actually saying this, but the weakest element of this Martin Scorsese film is Martin Scorsese. His visuals and direction of actors are stellar as always, but his gift for story momentum is entirely absent. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is devoid of restraint or consideration for the audience, and due to its self-indulgence, it wasn’t able to fully realize its ambitions, although it had the right intentions. I do think the film accomplishes its most important task, which was to put the audience among the Osage people so we could experience their torment. Therefore, it is a decent film overall, but one that is too long and self-indulgent for me to fully recommend.