Oscar Watch 2023: Killers of the Flower Moon


What is it that I said at the beginning of my Oscar Watch article for Maestro? That biopics are pretty bad, right? I suppose Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t a biopic in the most traditional sense, but it suffers from a lot of the same problems that similar films do. Not only does it portray history from a limited perspective, but it tries to give humanity to men who deliberately and repeatedly plotted to murder several Osage members. I understand that we’re all human at the end of the day and real-life Ernest Burkhart didn’t go home and continuously talk about his murderous plots, but… Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the last of the films on the Best Picture list that Flixist had previous coverage of. In Jesse Lab’s review of the movie, he said, “Killers of the Flower Moon is not Martin Scorsese’s best film, not by a long shot. While the technical components of the film are great and show that Scorsese is a master of his craft, framing the film around an underwhelming DiCaprio performance hurts more than it helps. Add in a lot of drawn-out pacing and some weird thematic framing of the Osage people and you have a film that had good intentions but doesn’t live up to the expectations it set up for itself.”

So, the only thing I truly disagree with here is that DiCaprio’s performance is underwhelming. Much like each character in this film, every performance is subdued. These are more realistic and meticulous personalities to show that racism and hatred aren’t always presented in cartoonish ways. The only over-the-top character here is W.S. Hamilton, the buffoonish lawyer played by Brendan Fraser. Otherwise, each moment plays out in a mundane manner to elevate the more violent moments to the intensity they deserve.

Killers of the Flower Moon

© Apple, Paramount

So, I think the biggest issue with Killers of the Flower Moon is its pacing. At three hours and 26 minutes, this is a substantial film. Director Martin Scorsese can absolutely get away with epic-length runtimes, but this film is incredibly lethargic in momentum. I will say, despite that gargantuan length, the film never bores, but there are certainly ways you could tighten this film up to better make its point.

The overarching theme in Killers of the Flower Moon is that corruption is a slow-moving, sometimes unnoticeable process. William King Hale (Robert DeNiro), a real-life crime boss and supporter of segregation, slowly manipulates his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) into performing his petty work. That work involves intimidating people via extortion, committing small larceny, and eventually ordering the murder of several Osage members.

For me, the film was summed up completely not even 20 minutes in when Ernest robbed some Osage members with his friends. The three were armed and masked and the implication was clear: this is exactly what the white man did with the native’s land. The rest of the movie just reiterates this point while portraying the story from the perspective of the evil men perpetrating these crimes.

© Apple, Paramount

Now, I understand that Scorsese openly admits to the audience in the ending that his understanding and depiction of events is flawed. That’s probably the most powerful thing about Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese truly cares about and wants to do right by the Osage, but he is still a white man with lots of money that could film himself taking a shit for 206 minutes and somehow get funding. If this film had been spearheaded by any remaining Osage members, it would have been shut down immediately. It’s a sad reality of Hollywood that is hopefully going to change in the future.

Killers of the Flower Moon is absolutely a flawed movie, but Scorsese knows that. He wants to bring awareness to this incident (which was abhorrently underreported for decades) so that native filmmakers can actually make attempts at telling the story. The man has a love of cinema and actively funds restoration efforts, so you know his heart is in the right place. All of this is great and it’s what helps me from calling this film a late-career misfire.

Still… did this need to be over three hours long? Is there any reason why Scorsese didn’t focus more on the human drama instead of trying to build up the historical setting? The most compelling parts of this film come in the third act when the proto-FBI comes to Oklahoma to investigate the murders. I hate to sound as if I know more than Scorsese, but I do feel Killers of the Flower Moon could have benefitted from flashbacks as the FBI investigates.

© Apple, Paramount

Still, you can’t deny that the elongated runtime allows the characters to be built up properly. Since this story is told through Ernest’s perspective (mostly), we see him devolve from a simple man who just wants to make an honest living to a lousy criminal mastermind who can’t even look his wife in the eyes. DiCaprio delivers a pretty muted performance in the beginning, but as he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of crime, he eventually lets loose with this horribly racist tirade that will likely make him irredeemable to many viewers.

Now, how have I written over 800 words without bringing up Lily Gladstone? For the most part, it’s because I don’t have anything to add to the conversation there. I do wish Mollie had better character development, which is kind of a problem with the Osage characters in this film. Even with that lack of humanization, Gladstone is able to bring out a calm rage here. She acts proper in society since this is the 1920s after all, but she’s not afraid to rebuke Ernest when he says something stupid. She does this all without violence and Gladstone’s expressions and quiet voice are able to sell it brilliantly.

It’s mostly a shame that after the halfway point, Mollie only shows up when the movie needs her. Again, I know this is a perspective problem that Scorsese has since he can’t do justice to the suffering the Osage endured, but Mollie is the best character in the movie. When she’s off-screen for big portions, Killers of the Flower Moon just feels like a really elaborately decorated miniseries.

© Apple, Paramount

As I explained to my sister after watching the movie, there was a moment where Ernest and Hale were in a car driving as if their world was about to implode. They think the jig is up and we’ve already seen numerous people die. Mollie is doing poorly and even Ernest’s idiotic insurance fraud plan has backfired. I thought the film was building to its conclusion. I looked at the timer and there was an entire feature-length film left.

Moreso than most biopics -of which I acknowledge that Killers of the Flower Moon is not-, this feels like a complete compendium of one man’s life instead of focusing on the inciting incident to his downfall or even the horrible atrocities he committed. When Ernest is courting Mollie before their marriage, there is a nice little moment where a rainstorm blows in. Ernest goes to close the window, but Mollie stops him. She wants them to sit there and take in the power of nature. I thought that was metaphorical, but no. The camera sits on them for a couple of minutes and we just sit there.

If that wasn’t in a film that ran for an eternity, I would have loved it. That’s a powerful moment that helps build character and establishes Mollie’s connection to her ancestral roots. It also shows that Ernest is at least attempting to understand her perspective. When you have several moments like this, however, they all feel like padding in a movie that makes its point, makes it a second time, and then makes it one last time before wrapping things up.

© Apple, Paramount

It’s really just the middle section that drags down the experience. The Osage Murders are an important part of history that should not be forgotten, something that my public school education failed me with. At the same time, we don’t need an astounding long story about them in movie form when most of that film is just actors in carefully curated costumes walking across historically accurate sets.

That sums up my experience with Killers of the Flower Moon. I understand why people enjoy it and I even like parts of it. I just wish Scorsese employed some restraint when editing the project. There is an important story here that everyone should be aware of, I’m just not entirely certain watching this movie is the best way to learn of the incident.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.