Arts movie review

Someone needs to learn to tell Martin Scorsese “no”

Although the film is beautifully shot and scored, its director’s-cut-length and script excesses drag it down

Killers of the Flower Moon
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, and Jesse Plemons 
Rated R. Now Playing 

Perfect job security is a dangerous thing: tenure for professors and lifetime judicial nominations are both examples of the freedom that a job guarantee offers and the risks (shoddy teaching, politically radical decisions) that it brings. Exactly fifty years after his crime film Mean Streets debuted in 1973, with a dozen award-winning films under his belt, Martin Scorsese has come as close to perfect job security as artists get — for better and for worse. 

Scorsese’s newest picture, Killers of the Flower Moon, is yet another by him to highlight the artistic impact of his career successes. Adapted from the 2017 novel of the same name by New Yorker journalist David Grann, the film centers on a series of murders in the Osage Nation during the early 20th century after the discovery of oil on the Native Americans’ land. With a runtime of more than three and a half hours, the cinematic release is essentially Scorsese’s director’s cut, featuring a tight, compelling first couple hours followed by a repetitive latter half. 

The audience is thrust into post-World War I Oklahoma, where Ernest Burkhart (a perpetually frowning Leonardo DiCaprio) has left his job as an army cook to try to strike it rich. And where better to do it than on the tribal lands of the Osage Nation, where the Native Americans have become exorbitantly wealthy from selling their newfound oil. White people hover parasitically around the reservation, as laws require white guardianship of the money and marrying into the tribe bestows headrights for a share of the oil wealth. Legal and romantic shenanigans are the least amoral white schemes; petty theft, insurance fraud, and cold-blooded murder are employed by white people, including Burkhart himself, to take advantage of the Osages. These more nefarious deeds are best embodied by Burkhart’s uncle, William “King” Hale (a characteristically mafia-adjacent Robert De Niro), an older rancher who pretends to support the Osage people while secretly orchestrating all sorts of violent criminal acts against them.

Ever the grifter, Hale notes Burkhart’s relative good looks and sets him on Mollie Kyle (a perfectly cast, warm yet guarded Lily Gladstone), a fortuitously single Native American woman whose family is wealthy from significant oil headrights. Although at first more focused on her money than her charm, Burkhart is taken by Kyle, and the two fall in love, marrying in a beautiful ceremony. The joyous union has grim backdrop though, as Hale puppeteers Burkhart and other cronies into murdering ever more of Gladstone’s family to secure a greater headright share. We have no choice but to hope for police or political intervention. 

At its core, the story is an engrossing one, combining the horrors of historic injustices with the feeling of revisionist fairness of a good nonfiction novel. And the first half moves along with a brisk, dark, gruesome pace, introducing us to the exceedingly tangled webs of the Osage people and their white interlopers. In both groups, characters are richly drawn and, generally, brilliantly cast. 

In the former, Mollie’s sisters (JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Cara Jade Myers) are chatty and flirty as young women but wary as Osages; her mother (Tantoo Cardinal) is weary, from another epoch altogether; her ex-husband (William Belleau) is depressed and alcoholic, yet attempts strength in the face of being wronged; and her tribe’s leaders (Everett Walker, Talee Redcorn, Yancey Red Corn) are tragic, doing the best they can as their people are pulled out from under them. On the other side, scummy hangers-on like Mollie’s brother-in-law (Jason Isbell) are everywhere; criminals like murderers and bootleggers (Louis Cancelmi, Sturgill Simpson) are universally stupid but terrifying nonetheless; Burkhart’s family members, including his brother (Scott Shepherd), clearly don’t have his best interests in mind; and townspeople like the doctor and undertaker (Steve Witting and Steve Routman) are all clearly in on the game. 

Above them all rises Lily Gladstone as Mollie, whose long gazes, insightful aphorisms, and heavy silences carry with them immense exhaustion, tremendous empathy, and deep knowledge of the realities of the world around her. Her hearty chuckles spread warmth, just as her piercing glares take it away, and her scenes in sickness and in health alike speak volumes. Meanwhile, DiCaprio and De Niro — as much as possible for actors of their stature and inherent skill — phone in their performances. Just like Scorsese, they too have job security (together having been in more than 15 of the director’s films), and there’s little new they have to offer.

Getting back to that job security, it’s of course well-deserved; Scorsese’s directorial fundamentals are at the top of their game. Killers of the Flower Moon is breathtakingly shot, with long, beautiful scenes of Oklahoma; its lighting is eerie and evocative; its set design is authentic and convincing; its score (the last by frequent collaborator Robbie Robertson) is a haunting mix of Native American songs and bluesy Americana twangs. 

But after several hours of unrelentingly brutal Native American killings and little in the way of character development or plot progression, the movie stalls. Introducing an FBI agent is a nod to the novel (whose subheading “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” signifies the agency’s larger importance in its pages), but carries little interest or weight in the film, and an extremely prolonged courtroom drama is as tired and troped as legal film gets. Actors introduced in this second half, such as a dull Jesse Plemons or an unintentionally funny Brendan Fraser, all feel shoehorned into a story that shouldn’t be theirs. A final narrative twist, more than 180 minutes in, feels even more unearned. 

These missteps devalue historical lives with Scorsese’s insistence on making the longest blockbusters in the business. Length — and lack of substance to back it up — was an issue in other Scorsese films such as 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street and 2019’s The Irishman, but because of the incredible importance of this story being told right, this is the most frustrating instance yet. So much excellence could have been sharpened and contained if only someone learned to tell Scorsese “no”.