- Movie Rating -

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

| October 21, 2023

It is a fact that the two most destructive forces of mankind are greed and racism.  These two things have born more chaos and death than any disease or famine that you can name.  And yes, It has been, whether we like it or not, part of the make-up of American history almost from the beginning.  I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to this.  I don’t regard that legacy without any form of examination or thesis.  For me, I have always been willing to offer a compromise.  I’d rather discuss history than censor it.  I do not believe in tearing down the walls of American history.  The unsavory elements of genocide and slavery, at the very least, need to be part of the conversation.

I had that feeling while watching Killers of the Flower Moon, the new film by Martin Scorsese that he wrote with master-adapter Eric Roth, the man who penned Forrest Gump, Dune and my favorite The Onion Field.  Based on the book by David Grann (which I haven’t read . . . yet!), it spells out, in blistering detail, the story of the systematic murders of the indigenous persons living in Ausage County, Oklahoma in the early years of the 20th century. 

It is the dawn of the 1920s, and America is just emerging victorious from the First World War.  Prosperity is everywhere, especially in Ausage where the fields are soaked with Black Gold – the image of happy Indians dancing in slow-motion as the oil falls around them is quite and image to behold.  The land belongs to these people and so too does the oil and the money that flows easily from it.  The Ausage Indians drive expensive cars and dress in fancy clothes and are chauffeured by working-class white men.  The wealthier whites do themselves a service by chumming it up with wealthy Indians.

Behind the scenes, as you might guess, matters are not so friendly because seated in a position of seemingly benevolent power is cattle baron William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), a smiling snake who wheels and deals like a master politician and has nefarious plans for the ingenious people and their oil.  Yes, he’s friendly enough to their faces but his plan is to play a political spin game, by getting his white friends to marry Indian girls – produce half-breed heirs so that the oil rights stay with the white businessmen.  The mothers and fathers of the tribe, and anyone else on the outs with Hale’s plan are on the schedule for a grisly fate. 

De Niro’s performance is frightening.  He has made a career out of playing murderous villains but the manner in which he can order an individual killed, and the network that he uses to keep it from coming back on him is nothing that we haven’t seen in movies like Goodfellas and Casino, but this is a different approach.  Hale is cunning and slick, well-dressed and well-mannered, and rotten to the core.

His chief lacky is his nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio sporting a bulldog chin), just off the train from the European trenches. He has spent the war as a company cook but his eyes betray the horror of what he has experienced while also possessing a heart that is vulnerable to moral ambiguity.  King senses this and hires him largely has his #2.

In the thick of his uncle’s operation, he becomes the driver for a wealthy Indian woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone) whom he lightly romances.  Gladstone is really the lynchpin of this entire film.  From the moment that we meet her, we sense something more than the cliché of The Sad Indian.  Yes, she has a mournful face and a distant demeanor (which she obviously needs in order to protect herself in this environment) but there is something else going on, something in her mind that we sense is much more attuned to what is happening than anyone realizes.  You sense in Mollie that, given other circumstances, she might have been a lawyer or a senator or a therapist.  This is my introduction to Gladstone, but she’s the kind of actress who can speak volumes without uttering a single word.  Hers is a brilliant, controlled performance and I expect to see her at the Oscars in March.

Mollie’s romance with Ernest is not conventional, but more of a convenience (Uncle Walter doesn’t object) and soon they are married and soon after is when the murders begin in Mollie’s family.  First, her sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) who is married to Ernest’s bother is found dead of a gunshot wound almost at the exact same time that a young man from the tribe is shot on the side of the road.  Her mother dies, so does her other sister, and she herself suffering from diabetes is diagnosed by a King-sanctioned doctor who prescribes insulin, which is a new drug that, disturbingly, is being administered by Ernest himself.

What is fascinating is that Scorsese has fashioned a story that is overloaded with primary and supporting players but we never lose our place or wonder who any of the players are.  Roth’s script is clean in that we know these people and the part that they play, and by the end we know all of their fates.  That’s good writing.  And in a film that runs 3 hours and 27 minutes, it is a difficult task.

So, how does it play out as a Scorsese movie?  For me, just as well as The Irishman in that he’s working in a brobdingnagian canvas but still keeps the mobster leanings intact.  De Niro’s character is really no different than the gangsters in Goodfellas, only the degree of approach makes the difference.  Plus, he never forgets the Indians themselves.  Their traditions, their pageantry, their customs are well-observed here and, in his visual imagery, we never forget whose land this really is.

But the BEST thing about this adaptation by Scorsese and Roth is that I had no idea how it was going to end.  Given the tapestry of greed and murder, and given this period of history when non-white people could be murdered at will and the KKK could march freely down the street and happily greet friends and neighbors, I figured that nothing would change.

BUT THEN the back half of the movie draws in what (I’m told) is the central focus of Grann’s book.  Into this chaos come a group of men for the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (which you know as the FBI), headed by an even-tempered young agent played Jessie Plemmons who has been sent by J. Edgar to look into the murders.  This, I didn’t expect.  For the first two-and-a-half hours we’ve been watching murder and death and then, all of a sudden, comes the cavalry and the film’s third act turns into an almost entirely different movie.  It is so exciting.  At a time when so many scripts crap out at the end with inevitable fights and resolutions, here is a movie in which the conclusion pays off on all that has been building up to this point.

I was completely and totally absorbed by Killers of the Flower Moon from start to finish.  I feared that in a movie that runs three-and-a-half hours, I might have gotten bored or lost my place, or gotten frustrated by useless subplots, but I didn’t.  Scorsese is still a master storyteller, a man who uses his canvas to spotlight a tragic piece of American history and bring it close enough for us to see clearly.  And, by focusing on the individuals, he makes it feel new.  The story of the exploitation and genocide of the American Indian is not unknown to anyone with a basic understanding of American history, but to pull it into the framework of a thriller and to focus on the individual lives brings it to life in a refreshing way.  It’s an ugly and unsavory part of our history, but Scorsese does a masterful job of pulling it into the conversation.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Drama