By Thomas M. Puhr.
Here is a filmmaker who remains unafraid of taking big creative risks but has clearly struggled with the ethical implications of adapting this dark chapter from American history. His heart is in the right place, but is he not still on that stage at the end?”
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) is a sprawling epic replete with a dream cast at the top of their game, an ever-prescient political commentary, and a number of breathtaking images, all helmed by a director who – at 80, no less – is as attentive to craftsmanship and artistic integrity as ever.
It is also far, far too long: a very good 3.5-hour film that could have been a great 3-hour one. Alas, not even the best living directors are exempt from Alexander Payne’s recent complaint that “there are too many damn long movies these days.”
Volleying this criticism, I feel like someone who moans that the dishes at a Michelin restaurant are just too big (how dare a master chef give me so much delicious food?). I’ll be the first to admit it’s a pedestrian observation. But just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it untrue. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
Based on David Grann’s bestselling 2017 book, the film chronicles a family’s years-long campaign of murder and terror against members of the Osage tribe in post-World War I Oklahoma. Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio costar respectively as William Hale and his nephew Ernest Burkhart. Both actors are fantastic (it’s thrilling to watch them together for the first time since 1993’s This Boy’s Life, especially when their characters share such a depraved relationship), and the tension between them is countered beautifully by Lily Gladstone’s remarkable performance as Ernest’s wife, Mollie Burkhart.
After Ernest – a World War I veteran with no education and an insatiable thirst for women and riches – marries into Mollie’s wealthy Osage family, Hale orchestrates a diabolical plan to acquire the fortune by any means necessary. Despite a large cast and at times labyrinthine plot, the proceedings are anchored by Hale’s central scheme, which is straightforward in its ruthless efficiency: Kill any surviving members of Mollie’s family (including, ultimately, Mollie herself) so Ernest can inherit their oil money.
Such atrocities don’t occur in a vacuum, and Mollie understands this sad truth better than most. In an early voiceover, she enumerates the details of a string of murders that have plagued the community; one Osage woman is shot in the head right in front of her child, who is swept from its carriage and taken away. Scorsese and cowriter Eric Roth also acknowledge the societal and governmental mechanisms that allowed such violence to go ignoredand (weighing the crimes against the appallingly light sentences they provoked; both uncle and nephew got to enjoy their twilight years beyond bars) more or less unpunished. When agents from a nascent FBI – headed by Tom White (an always-welcome Jesse Plemons) – show up and start asking questions, members of the tribe are quick to point out that it took cornering President Coolidge (not to mention throwing a lot of money at investigators, some of whom are murdered themselves) to get the attention they deserved. One can’t help but wonder: Do White and his brothers in arms actually care about this gross injustice, or are they just harbingers of the U.S. government’s belated efforts to save face?
Indeed, capturing the public’s attention cuts both ways. When stories like this are brought to light, furious calls for justice are often accompanied by cheap exploitation masked as altruism. The penultimate scene puts this tension front and center. Taking place some years later in a packed auditorium, it depicts the live recording of a radio program about the crimes. Voice actors, scripts and questionable accents in hand, deliver their lines with gusto. Sound effect technicians scramble to simulate gunshots. The audience listens, silent, rapt, to the metanarrative in micro-scale. This epilogue functions as both a sobering reminder of how history (especially one so detrimental to a country’s self-conception as an innocent crusader for justice) can be forgotten and a scathing critique of our true-crime obsessed times. One is reminded of De Niro’s pathetic mantra at the end of Raging Bull (1980): “That’s entertainment!”
Tellingly, Scorsese has a cameo as one of the voice actors in this scene: “There was no mention of the murders,” he announces with dignified solemnity. This line – the film’s last – is a reference to Mollie’s whitewashed obituary as well as an unsubtle mission statement for the entire production; now the murders have been mentioned, and then some. It’s also a moment of startling self-awareness, one that suggests the director’s conflicted feelings about the project. Here is a filmmaker who remains unafraid of taking big creative risks but has clearly struggled with the ethical implications of adapting this dark chapter from American history. His heart is in the right place, but is he not still on that stage at the end?
The epilogue functions as both a sobering reminder of how history (especially one so detrimental to a country’s self-conception as an innocent crusader for justice) can be forgotten and a scathing critique of our true-crime obsessed times.”
Killers of the Flower Moon works best when it illustrates its larger thematic preoccupations through microcosmic set pieces; hence the raw power of the radio show sequence. Similarly, what makes Ernest such a fascinating character is how his dramatic arc comes to represent our larger national identity crisis. He fancies himself a sheep but acts like a wolf, somehow convincing himself that he really loves his wife and children, all while plotting to destroy them. And therein lies the key. Ernest is not “simply” being deceitful (he’s not smart enough to weave such a sophisticated web of lies). He genuinely doesn’t seem to understand how perverse it is to administer his diabetic wife’s insulin shot with a loving gentleness, all while knowing full well that it’s laced with poison. Once the jig is up, he’s offered an opportunity time and again to repent and take responsibility for his sins only to cower behind his powerful uncle or lie outright. I’m not sure which is worse: evil borne out of pure malevolence or shocking stupidity (maybe it doesn’t really matter, if the endgame is the same). But Killers of the Flower Moon makes a strong case for the latter being far more terrifying, partially because it empowers those (like Hale) who do know better.
Scorsese falters a bit when he tries to explicitly render these broader implications by turning to the courtroom subgenre. Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow make late-stage appearances as Hale’s and Ernest’s respective lawyers. It was around this point that I started feeling the unignorable urge to check the time. Of course, runtime means little in and of itself (Killers is just a touch longer than 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which doesn’t feel at all like a 3-hour viewing experience but bursts with propulsive energy). However, these courtroom sequences bloat the narrative when it should be at its most tightly focused. Ernest’s vacillations on the witness stand – he decides to testify against his uncle, changes his mind due to family pressure, and then struggles to stick with his choice – aren’t all that suspenseful if you have even a passing familiarity with the story. And the legal morass of who gets to represent whom (Fraser’s W.S. Hamilton claims to represent both men, though they are at odds with one another – and though Ernest already has a lawyer) becomes convoluted and distracting. I suspect these lengthy scenes were kept in deference to the source material, but they detract from the far more interesting power struggles among Hale, Ernest, and Mollie. Ernest’s climactic exchange with his wife – in which he finally lays his cards out on the table, and she responds with a damning stoicism – is electric, to name one example. It’s when a few too many characters are packed into the frame – sometimes literally, as when Ernest joins Hale, Hamilton, and what appears to be his uncle’s entire extended family for a late night of legal strategizing – that my attention began to drift.
But when the film soars, boy does it soar. Many of Scorsese’s and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s images more than justify seeing Killers of the Flower Moon on the biggest screen possible. Consider a raging nighttime fire, its foregrounded flames distorting the bodies of those toiling to extinguish it. Or a convoy of FBI cars congregated in front of a series of oil derricks (a number of these wide-angle compositions would be right at home in a classical Western). Some of their images are all the more powerful for their undramatic banality. When Mollie’s sister Anna Brown (Cara Jade Myers) is executed in a forest, the murder is depicted through an uninterrupted and largely static wide-angle shot (credit here must also go to the great Thelma Schoonmaker). Stylistic adornments like non-diegetic music are absent. We simply watch, made complicit in this brutal slaying that ends with a lifeless body slumping to the ground. Such moments speak to a film that subverts its mass-market packaging (it was released in IMAX, which is usually reserved for franchise blockbusters) precisely when so many other true crime offerings would linger on the bloody details.
The final shot in particular may very well rank among the director’s finest. In it, an extreme closeup of a drum’s surface gives way – via an unbroken helicopter shot – to an overhead view of an immense drum circle. This composition not only echoes the film’s first image (a low-angle look skyward) but also operates as a sort-of inverse to what Scorsese did at the end of Silence. If his 2016 adaptation of the Shûsaku Endô novel closes with a tight movement into the recesses of a clutched hand – wherein we glimpse a Catholic cross: the totem of a shamed priest’s enduring belief – then this film emphasizes the power of collective faith by pulling away from a group of people engaged in shared ceremony. Salvation comes not from devout interiority but from looking beyond the self and toward community. Scorsese himself has been vocal about his commitment to working closely with the Osage to render their story with both respect and accuracy (the director’s introduction to theatrical screenings – itself an attempt, perhaps, to head off the inevitable backlash – spells this goal out in no uncertain terms). He too is looking beyond the individual in his ever-evolving practice as an American auteur.
This closing image – majestic, stunningly choreographed – would be a formally audacious coda to a career that has shown no sign of slowing down or weakening. If this were to be Scorsese’s last film (I hope to God it isn’t), then it would be a hell of a way to go out.
1. “‘The Holdovers’ Editor Kevin Tent Talks Being in the Cutting Room With Alexander Payne,” A.frame, November 8, 2023.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.