At this point in his career, I’m at a loss about what exactly to say about Martin Scorsese. The man has been an institution in the film industry for over half a century and has directed some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time. If you’re someone who follows film as an art form, you know who Scorsese is. Even if you don’t know who he is, his comments about modern-day cinema are almost always guaranteed to generate some discourse. Then there’s the fact that whenever he releases a new film, like his latest film Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s almost certainly going to get a plethora of praise and adoration simply because it’s a Scorsese film.
In a way, that’s understandable. If you’re going to be making films for over 50 years, you probably picked up a few skills and techniques that will keep audiences coming back for more. With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese delivers a film that is right in his wheelhouse, getting a bunch of his frequent collaborators together to tell the story of the Osage murders. You can tell that a lot of love and attention was put into this movie and the utmost respect was given to the Osage people. But as the film progresses through its staggering three-and-a-half-hour runtime, I kept thinking that Killers of the Flower Moon was misguided in some of its efforts, ultimately feeling underwhelming in its execution.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Director: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: October 20, 2023 (Theatrical)
Set during the turn of the 20th century in Fairfax, Oklahoma, Killers of the Flower Moon follows Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo Dicaprio), a soldier returning from war and choosing to live in the country with the support of his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). While there, Ernest falls in love with an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and decides to marry her. Thanks to the native land the Osage being on top of a huge oil deposit, the Osage become rich and are some of the wealthiest people in the world. However, due to their status as Native Americans, a whole host of white people are attempting to do whatever they can to steal the wealth from the Osage, either through fraud, exploiting insurance policies, or, of course, murder.
The film opens with a sad accounting of the state of the Osage nation. White men are coming into their land and their culture is being eradicated because of it. There’s a somber acknowledgment that their way of life is dying and their descendants won’t know their own history. Then once we see the Osage become wealthy thanks to discovering oil, they seem to almost give up their traditions in favor of living the lives that the white men live. But by becoming closer to the white men, the white people begin to see them as threats to their dominance of the region.
The themes of Killers of the Flower Moon are fascinating to explore and sink your teeth into. Not only does the film have an extensive amount of commentary about the treatment of Native Americans, but about racism, greed, and the commodification of tragedy. Some scenes had me glued to the screen, such as seeing the cracks in this relatively idyllic small town begin to appear. At first, it’s from a barrage of grifters at a train station peddling jobs to anyone that passes them by, but then you start to notice larger issues like how the KKK operates in plain sight and is generally accepted by the community. The more you learn about the people who live in Fairfax, the more you start to wonder how the Osage would ever put up with these people.
Then again, it’s really hard to get a grasp on the Osage’s perspective throughout the film. For a movie where the main driving force is uncovering who is causing irreparable harm to the Osage, they’re all supporting characters in the film. Outside of a few scenes in the beginning and one towards the middle, they hardly factor into what’s happening and come across as an afterthought. Even Mollie, who is arguably the most important character in the film given how everything revolves around her, is treated as a supporting character as she’s shunted to the side in favor of everything else.
For as much as Martin Scorsese wants to pay respect to Osage culture and remind audiences of the callous attacks the Osage experienced because of their sudden wealth, it still comes across at times like a white savior narrative where the white people are responsible for bringing the evil villains to light. Granted, you can only do so much in a retelling of an actual historical event, facts are facts after all, but it’s how they are presented that does the central theme a disservice. For example, if you’re going to tell the plight of the Osage, why would you make your main character Leonardo DiCaprio?
It leaves a weird taste in your mouth the longer you watch the film seeing how much time the film gives to showcasing Ernest’s problems and struggles. Without getting into spoilers, Ernest is a character that really shouldn’t be your central protagonist, yet the film decides to revolve everything around him and his associates. It’s not even that great of a performance by Dicaprio, as it feels like a blending of his roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Revenant but not exceeding either of them. He grimaces his way through scenes and while there’s a certain patheticness to Ernest as he tries to please everyone and rolls over like a dog, it still feels like DiCaprio is on autopilot. A Leo performance on autopilot is still good, but it’s not great.
What is a great performance here is Lily Gladstone, who gives off a certain confidence in every scene she’s allowed to act in. There’s a playfulness to her early scenes as she and Ernest begin to fall for each other, replaced by a quiet and reserved dejectedness after all of the events of the film play out. Sadly, she’s sidelined for most of the middle of the film as the focus shifts to Ernest and King. Speaking of King, I’m actually kind of surprised how little I cared for De Niro’s performance. He plays King Hale fairly one-note, generally being a pleasant and kind man who is not all he seems. Even during moments where we’re supposed to find him imposing, De Niro instead makes him feel like a stern Mr. Rogers and not the powerful boss he’s meant to be.
It’s all competently done though. For as much as I take issue with Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s still a well-made movie. The cinematography is solid, with the low and dull sound mixing doing a lot to lift the tension in certain scenes. The writing in several scenes is quite good and the supporting cast is wonderful. It’s a movie I can see getting a ton of Academy Awards not just because of the pedigree that Scorsese has attained, but because they genuinely deserve to be nominated. Given some of the competition he’ll have to face, I don’t think he’ll win any of them, but a nomination is still a nomination.
But for as good as these individual moments are, you’ll still have to contend with the fact that the film is three-and-a-half hours long. It’s a lot to get through and while movies like Oppenheimer can justify their extreme length by having a fairly brisk pace with a rapidly shifting focus, Killers of the Flower Moon drags a lot in the middle as it reaches its climax. I should be interested in learning who is responsible for these crimes, but the film reveals its hand too early, shifting the focus from a murder mystery to a padded waiting game as we wonder when our perpetrators will be brought to justice.
I think that the final scene serves as a perfect coda for everything that the film tries to do. After everything has happened, we’re cut to years later as the events of the film become a radio drama, with actors and Scorsese himself summing up the aftermath of the film’s events. Despite this tragedy resulting in the deaths of dozens of people, it ultimately has become entertainment. It’s something for audiences to be amused and fascinated by, not dissimilar from a true crime podcast today. It’s honestly a great ending and does help to elevate what came before it. The film starts great and ends wonderfully, but everything in the middle is a mixed bag.
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. It’ll probably still end up on many critics’ best movies of the year list, but I probably won’t be one of them thanks to how uneven the final product is.