The legendary filmmaker revisits long-held themes of greed, violence and moral depravity in his expansive epic of the American West, while widening his typical purview. By Yasmin Omar
In some ways, the absorbing crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon is a textbook Martin Scorsese movie. It follows his classic rise-and-fall structure, where the first two acts detail the power-hungry protagonists’ rampant, reckless lawbreaking, and the last one makes them face the consequences of their actions (this new film, like Goodfellas , Casino  and The Wolf of Wall Street  before it, also ends with scenes of reckoning in a courtroom). In other ways, Killers diverges from the director’s previous work. Where racism has skulked in the shadows of Scorsese’s oeuvre – rearing its head in Frank Costello’s interactions with his Asian clients in The Departed (2006) or Travis Bickle’s anti-Black gaze in Taxi Driver (1976) – here, it plays a central role.
Killers tells the true story of the Reign of Terror in 1920s Fairfax, Oklahoma, a little known but typically bloody, white supremacy-motivated black spot on the already ink-splattered ledger of American history. At that time, the Osage Nation were the richest people per capita on Earth, and their resources drove the local economy. In a desperate grasp for control, a cabal of white townsfolk brutally massacred the Indigenous community, under the benevolent eye of the corrupt police force. The discovery of these murders eventually led to the formation of the FBI. Killers firmly roots us in the Native perspective at the outset; indeed, the first words of spoken dialogue are in Osage, as reservation elders bemoan the thinning of their ancestral bloodline. From there, the film expands its scope – across its hefty, three-and-a-half-hour runtime – unfolding into a sprawling, kaleidoscopic portrait of greed, violence and moral depravity.
Leading the charge on this war against the Osage is the cattle rancher and reserve deputy sheriff Bill (Robert De Niro, slyly diabolical), who, despite his reputation as a pillar of rectitude within Fairfax, is secretly a money-grubbing, murder-sanctioning tyrant. De Niro has certainly been more nakedly villainous on screen before, but there’s something uniquely nausea-inducing about his character’s obsequious concern for the welfare of the Indigenous in public, and his homicidal plot to do away with them in private. Since Bill is unwilling to sully his squeaky-clean image, he enlists his suggestible simpleton of a nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) to organise the hits, though only after Bill has arranged for him to marry the affluent, full-blood Osage Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and become her next of kin. Anyone who’s ever watched a Western will have been force-fed the genre’s bogus nationalism, the history-rewriting ‘cowboys are the good guys’ narrative. So to see the heroism drained from these strapping horsemen in their wide-brimmed hats and spur-spiked boots is pretty remarkable. The horrors they enact dismantle decades of cultural conditioning.
This is a volte-face on the first iteration of Scorsese and Eric Roth’s Killers script, which focused on the FBI agent Tom White (to be played by DiCaprio) and his efforts to put Bill and Ernest behind bars. However, recognising the overtones of white saviorism, the writers retooled the screenplay to offer a richer, more complex portrait of the Osage people. What draws you into the film now is Lily Gladstone’s Mollie. If the actor’s 2016 breakout Certain Women didn’t vault her into the mainstream quite as we’d hoped, Killers surely will. She delivers a devastating, internal performance, sweeping feeling across her face with the lightest watercolours to illustrate the deep, acrylic emotion churning within.
Mollie is the tragic figure of the film. She knows that Ernest doesn’t truly love her, and will prioritise money over their marriage at every opportunity, but she accepts his simulation of affection anyway, his hand on her shoulder, his delicate brushing of her hair. As Mollie’s relatives start being picked off one by one, Gladstone summons a quiet fury. In one particularly potent sequence, we’re plunged into her point of view at a train station, and experience the white passengers looking at her/us with a mixture of fear and disgust. When she is handed the voiceover (this is a Scorsese movie, of course there are multiple narrators), Gladstone tremulously, icily conveys Mollie’s vitriol towards white people, whose relentless materialism is tearing apart Osage families and destroying their culture. It is her disapproving stare, the stern line of her mouth, that makes us consider the victims amid all the wanton shootings, lootings and arson.
Gladstone and DiCaprio bounce off each other well, their characters’ arguments are chilling enough to elicit full-body shivers. DiCaprio – with his Missou-rah accent, protruding chin and downturned mouth full of fake teeth – presents Ernest as sufficiently charming to win Mollie’s hand, even if his prodding lecherousness (and avarice) leads her to call him ‘a coyote’. The actor’s got this vicious, I’m-up-to-no-good cackle that I’ve never heard him do before; it’s a terrifying, gravelly sneer from the pit of his stomach. Incredibly fitting for playing a man so evil he fathers Osage children, learns the Osage language, but still coldly calculates the Osage’s demise.
A fault of Killers, though, is that however brilliant DiCaprio is (and he really is, it’s been a while since he’s had a chance to sink his teeth into a vile antagonist), the film prioritises Ernest’s perspective too often. Despite the script rewrites, the filmmakers lack the courage of their conviction to fully embrace the Osage as the story’s protagonists. There are substantial narrative stretches where Mollie – the film’s beating heart – all but disappears. To a lesser extent, it’s the ‘Anna Paquin in The Irishman (2019)’ problem. Gladstone’s role is crucial – similarly to Paquin’s Peggy, Mollie is the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg of the movie, silently judging the vicious men around her – and yet she is not afforded the same character development Ernest and Bill are.
Scorsese has never been a moralistic filmmaker. Because his studies of gangsters and gunmen are rendered with an accessibly poppy, virtuosic style, they have frequently been misinterpreted as endorsements of these people’s misdeeds. There is a stronger sense of gravitas to Killers; the writer-director does away with the flashiness that defined his earlier output, settling on a more sedate pace, a more dignified tone. You can feel the weight of history as the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto tracks across the wide-open plains and cow-covered fields, unspoiled until the White Man interferes. Ultimately, Killers of the Flower Moon is quintessentially Scorsese, for it’s a tale of America – the home he’s been chronicling on film for the past 50 years – whose very foundations are built on dead bodies and whose origin story is written in spilled blood. With considerable compassion and grace, Scorsese exposes the rotten core of the native land that his predecessors have mythologised into oblivion.
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