Watched on October 31st, 2023
Veteran master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, returns with a harrowing 3-and-a-half-hour odyssey into a lesser known period of American history retelling the real-life events of how greedy white people calculated and executed the slow and methodical murder and theft of the people of the Osage nation in 1920s Oklahoma.
This will be a slightly lengthy review (honoring the film’s runtime) and will discuss story points from the film.
Ever since its premiere back at the Cannes Film Festival, the film has been receiving a lot of praise it wholly deserves; it may not be the best film of the year, but it’s on my top 10. Killers of the Flower moon is a blood-boiling epic in which Martin Scorsese’s best and worst tendencies are well-formed and balanced. The film grabs you from the first few minutes and slowly builds its narrative and characters all throughout its somewhat justifiable runtime. Martin Scorsese and co-writer Eric Wroth slowly tell the story of the murders and the major players in their orchestration and execution and take a rather cold and systematic approach that gives the viewer room to understand why and how the murders are being committed, but consequently offend the viewer and makes them disturbed by the brutality of these actions, inaction of the authorities, and helplessness of the victims. The viewer gets transported into a dirty cesspool of scheming and wretchedness from which they can’t escape; a few minutes into the film and my blood was boiling. I do not think this time period and setting have been portrayed on screen before, and to see how things played out back then was certainly eye-opening. The dialogue dragged for too long sometimes, regardless of how well-written it was.
At the heart of the film, resides a love story which on its own serves as the center around which everything revolves. The romance between Ernest and Mollie has a soft, earnest side but an ultimately heartbreaking and painful one. In traditional Scorsese fashion (similar to his gangster films, and this one is in a way has some similarities to Casino and Goodfellas), the ending culminates into a tense few minutes where everything starts coming together and served with a coda that transcends the film’s time-period and story, going into an almost self-reflective approach: after the trial, the film substitutes on-screen text for a scene where a group of narrators and musicians perform the ending of the story, as if the entire film was being told by these people, think of this scene as crime podcast but as a live performance on stage. Here, the spectators are shown to be clearly relaxed white people enjoying this crime story. Now it may look like the scriptwriters were going for a “oh the film was being told by these people” which is a totally cringe-worthy ending but of course, it was not their intention. What this scene does: showing the story of the film being performed live on stage with quirky sounds and different narrators in front of an audience, for their entertainment, turns the film against the viewers and makes them question their position as viewers or rather try to make them uncomfortable with any possible enjoyment drawn out from the film. You see, Killers of the Flower Moon does not simply want you to feel bad and educated about what has happened but wants you to reach in even further into your outlook on the story and position as an individual. This coda questions and critiques the way mass-audiences receive knowledge of humanity’s dark history and how a tragedy may turn into an enjoyable “story”, how modern and old audiences derive pleasure from crime stories – a critique of crime stories consumption. Perhaps this is Martin Scorsese washing his hands of any potential criticism, but him appearing on screen and reciting the conclusion of Mollie Burkhart’s story negates this supposition – we see how deeply he cares about her in his performance and direction of Lily Gladstone’s portrayal of this character.
Speaking of portraying characters, the performances were killer in this film (pun-unintended). Lily Gladstone delivered a riveting and strong performance that I can see being a top contender in the awards season. She’s sensational on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio disappears into the role playing a despicable and morally conflicting character. Opposite them, lies what may be one of my favorite Robert DeNiro performances. The remaining cast members were absolutely immersed into their roles, delivering subtle and poignant performances. Most of the actors are not A-listers and I have never seen them before, so I will not name them one-by-one pretending I know them, but I did not see a single unconvincing performance. Then, at the end, Brendan Fraser shows up and commands the screen saying a few lines – a truly great, short role. And I cannot forget Jesse Plemons who deserves more leading roles in major films.
Jumping over to the visual side of Killers of the Flower Moon, the pairing of Scorsese and Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also shot Barbie, by the way) created a visually stunning result. From the choice of film stock, to lighting dark scenes (+clever use of lights and shadows), to photographing sceneries and events, in addition to Martin Scorsese’s tracking and dolly shots, it feels like a Scorsese picture but with a period-immersive look and an extra-layer of general aesthetic beauty when needed, and striking and disturbing visuals when it’s unexpected. Now, some shots and scenes were slightly boring visually, opting for repetitive shot-reverse-shots for overly long dialogue scenes – however, in a way, they do accentuate the careless coldness of the characters and the conversations. Martin Scorsese shows an incredible eye for detail and care for this story and the Osage people which shines through his direction and portrayal of the Osage. I will not talk about his direction much as its really a master at the top of his craft carrying multiple departments together and creating a great film.
The editing by Thelma Schoonmaker is incredible and helps the film’s pacing and makes the runtime manageable for the viewers.
The music of Killers of the Flower Moon composed by Robbie Robertson, ads an extra layer of dread and angst to the film. The score blends sounds associated with Osage tribes, the American west, and vocals.
In conclusion, Killers of the Flower Moon is a new Martin Scorsese epic that does its subject matter justice and stands on its own as a beautiful and harrowing film.
I am not sure how receptive I’d be to it on a rewatch, considering I do not resonate with Martin Scorsese’s films all that much – I will get shot in the trunk of a car for saying this but I am not a big fan of his films but I respect him and love him as a filmmaker and I am a huge fan and supporter of his work in caring for cinema – and I think my appraisal of it will diminish. One thing is for sure, Killers of the Flower Moon hits the mark when you first watch it, and if you dislike it the first time, it may be worth revisiting sometime later.
*Excuse any grammatical or syntax errors in this review (and other ones): it’s late at night and I don’t really like to proof-read.