KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON -- Excellent Production Values and Performances Make This Another Achievement by Scorsese
Review by Dan Skip Allen
I don't think anybody can debate the fact that Martin Scorsese is an auteur director. He has done some interesting films in his career. He's tried some things that haven't always worked, but most of the time his films are considered masterpieces of cinema. In Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the David Grann book of the same name, he uses every trick in the book as a filmmaker to get the story across to the viewer in the most informative way possible. Even though everything he tries doesn't always work, it's still another achievement in cinema.
David Grann's book is mainly from the perspective of the police in Pawhuska County on the Osage Indian Reservation and FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), but this version of the story by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese is from the perspective of the Osage nation, mainly Molly Kyle-Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). She is what they call “oil-rich.” Her people were considered the richest people in the world per capita at this time in history because they struck oil on their land. This didn't sit well with everybody, especially the King of the Osage Hills, William Hale (Robert De Niro)
Hale hatches a plan to try and get his nephew Earnest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) to befriend Molly and try to become romantically linked to her. Unbeknownst to Ernest, there are numerous killings of the Osage people, often labeled as suicides or illnesses.
History isn't always defined by the victors — it's often defined by those who lost. In the case of the Osage people, they lost a lot at the hands of a greedy businessman and racially-charged intentions by white people looking to get rich from the deaths of these innocent victims. De Niro's Hale was disguised as a white knight, when in reality he was the perpetrator of quite a bit of the pain, suffering, and deaths of these people. It's a typical trope in films like this.
There are a lot of things about Killers of the Flower Moon that worked for me. One of them is the cast — from the biggest-name actors to the extras in the background of many scenes, often Osage and the townspeople. Scorsese has assembled a talented group of actors to round out this expansive cast. The three main actors — Gladstone, DiCaprio, and De Niro — are all standouts in their roles and should garner awards contention. Gladstone shines opposite two of the heavyweights of the industry in the past and present. She goes through so much as this woman who sees everything she knows being torn away from her. She emotes extraordinarily well by using just her eyes and very little facial movement. She doesn't say much but when she does it's very powerful. She is a surefire contender for a Best Actress Academy Award nomination.
As mentioned before, Scorsese uses some tricks of the trade to get across a lot of information about this story. First off, he uses what looks like old pictures to show various Osage people and the ones that died already as this story starts. Those pictures are in black and white and are framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Another trick is the narration by both Gladstone and DiCaprio. DiCaprio's narration is while reading a book about the Osage people and turning the pages so the viewer can see images of what happened to these Native Americans and their history. Scorsese is truly a master filmmaker, and he used every trick up his sleeve for this film.
However, what didn't sit well with me were the length of the film and the editing. This movie has a big story at its center, but is no different than any other story in that it could have been condensed down a little bit. There are some redundant scenes and other scenes that don’t make much sense if you didn't read the book. Thelma Schoonmaker is a great editor, and she does as well as possible with what she's got to work with. That being said, this film was too long and dragged in the second act especially. I know Scorsese had a blank check, but the story needed to be a little tighter than it was.
Furthermore, there was often a sense of humor in the movie when I felt it shouldn't have had this sort of vibe. DiCaprio’s character was a bit of a dunce, and while he was very good as the character, he got people laughing at him. I don't think he should have been a laughing stock. Other moments also made my audience laugh at the wrong times, and that didn’t seem to be the intention. This isn't a comedy — it's a drama. I didn't want to laugh at the absurdity or moronic nature of this story. I felt like I should be mad at what happened to these people.
Scorsese has been a director of some of the most iconic films of the last fifty years. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are among my personal favorite films. He has made character pieces that say something about specific groups of people — mostly Italians. In the case of this film, though, it's about the persecution of the Native American people. I don't think he took the material as seriously as he should have. Even though the performances were very good by the big three and a lot of the production was done thoroughly, I just can't get my head around the comedic moments.
Killers of the Flower Moon was my most anticipated film of the year, and now that I've finally seen it, I was let down a tiny bit. The production design, cinematography, and acting, by DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone specifically, were all impeccable. It was just the length of the film and the odd script choices that threw me off a bit. Scorsese, like all directors, was trying to make an entertaining film. He didn't go out trying to make a movie where people were laughing at such a tragic time in American history, but people were laughing at the misery of others. That isn't something I can abide by regarding this story. Sure, drug-fueled craziness and opulence in The Wolf of Wall Street can get people to laugh, but that’s not so appropriate here. Other than this problem, I loved the movie and its execution by Scorsese and company.
Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters on October 20.