Approaching his 81st birthday this November, Martin Scorsese is still willing to maximize his creation in different stories. Power, greed, family, and murder have consistently been part of his crime dramas, but Killers of the Flower takes place in a different area of the country. It is the 1920s and Osage County, Oklahoma is full of wealth courtesy of the oil found decades earlier. The Osage natives have headrights which give them a share of the wealth, and they live peacefully with the White population. Then, one by one, the natives die unexpectedly at young ages with no investigations. Soon, the unsolved homicides make it more apparent that a singular orchestrator is running the show.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Ernest Burkhart, a weary WWI veteran who moves to live with his uncle, William Hale (Robert DeNiro), on his ranch. He meets and marries an Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and has children with her. Hale is the charismatic, universally liked figure who is friends with the Osage and trusted. DeNiro fills Hale with manipulative charm who can easily control his naive Ernest, struggling to find his ground, even when falling in love and marrying the headstrong Mollie. DiCaprio captures Ernest in full form, one who wants to be strong but is really a weasel and a minion to his domineering uncle. In one comedic scene, Hale humiliates Ernest with an old-school paddle on the backside.
And then there is Lily Gladstone. Recent news of her performance being moved up to Lead Actress for awards consideration had some thinking it was a mistake, but it is far from it. Gladstone is the movie, and the representation of the emotions of the Osage characters flows through her. No doubt, Gladstone is a lead and gave the best performance of them all. The heart of it comes from Gladstone’s visual and physical actions in witnessing the carnage and pushing to find out who is responsible. Her spirit carries, and it would be hard for any actress to take on such a heavy role.
The late Robbie Robbertson’s score, infused with country, jazz, and tribal music, is a perfect soundtrack to the era and the seeping darkness of the story. Scorsese uses all the tricks with the help of his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer for the last four films, Rodrigo Prieto, in cutting through this dense story. Even though the presence of federal investigators led by Tom White (Jesse Plemmons) comes in the last third of the film, they tie in the ends with a procedural storyline that brings the killings to a close and trial. In a pair of bit parts, John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser appear as the prosecutor and defense attorneys.
Killers Of The Flower Moon is a saga that reminds us that the cautions of greed and genocide are still around us a century later. David Hale’s must-read book it is based on delves more into the origins of the FBI and going through this horrendous true story. The decision by Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth to put the Hale-Burkhardt storyline front and center makes the story even more important and more worthy to have our three-hour twenty-six-minute running time useful. The first and last shot of the film ends with the death and rebirth, respectively, of the Osage people, indicating their presence and right to the land will never shake.