Killers of the Flower Moon comes with a pair of bookends that play, to me, like director Martin Scorsese accepting defeat. It opens with an old-timey newsreel effusively telling us about the fortunes of the Osage people, how an oil deposit on Osage land has given these Native Americans immense wealth and rich lifestyles. More than three hours later, it caps this story with a true crime radio drama epilogue, complete with sound effects and cartoon-ish voice performances a la A Prairie Home Companion.
In between those scenes, Killers of the Flower Moon is a meticulously paced character study about a white family’s attempts to destroy the Osage while pretending to be their friends–this is a true story. But those bookends feel like an acknowledgement of the limitations of the format–try as they might, Scorsese and co. cannot truly do justice to this story with something so frivolous as a movie. Even one that’s three-and-a-half hours long.
Warning: This review contains light spoilers for Killers of a Flower Moon related to the development of characters based on the true story behind the film.
That said, Killers of the Flower Moon is quite an experience even so. It centers on Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, who pops up in Oklahoma to try to get work with his uncle William (Robert De Niro) and brother (Scott Shepherd), who are enmeshed in the Osage community. Ernest begins his time there working as a cabbie, and before long he’s made the acquaintance of an Osage woman named Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone).
Uncle William encourages Ernest to get close to Molly–if he marries her, Ernest could inherit Osage headrights, which gave members of the Osage Nation a share of their oil money. But he can’t inherit anything while Molly’s family is alive. And so, one by one, Molly’s sisters and other Osage folks are killed, the sheriff doesn’t care in the least, and it’s William who’s behind it all.
The way that Killers of the Flower Moon treats Ernest in particular is fascinating, portraying him almost as an innocent and oblivious man being manipulated by his terrible uncle. But the film gradually unwraps him, piece by piece, at first merely hinting that he may know more about these dark plans, then slowly, over hours, revealing the painful depth of his complicity. But even through it all, Ernest clings to his belief in his own goodness–he’s never able to fully come to grips with the reality of his life with William, who makes Ernest call him King.
A large part of Ernest’s cognitive dissonance is inspired by what the film portrays as a seemingly genuine love for Molly. Molly is a wary woman, but she falls for Ernest because he comes off as very open and sincere–he admits that he would enjoy making use of Molly’s money, rather than trying to pretend otherwise the way other men might have, and Molly appreciates the candor.
Molly is also in a tough spot, since all full-blooded Osage required a white guardian to access their money–something we see Molly have to do several times during Killers of the Flower Moon. Marrying Ernest ostensibly gets her around that problem, assuming he’s not an awful person, and so it’s not hard to appreciate the urge.
Gladstone’s almost stoic performance is in stark contrast to the rather emotive DiCaprio and the always-talking De Niro–she gets a lot of play out of small expressions, like a tiny smirk, side-eye, and things like that. She’s got the vibe of a character who’s always contemplating the situation and realizing she doesn’t have many options. And while she’s rarely loud, she always carries herself with a serious presence.
For me personally, though, as somebody with a lot of real-life, personal experience with William’s brand of two-faced Christianity, it’s De Niro who made the biggest impression. De Niro perfectly adopts the manner of a comforting old man uttering evangelical truisms every time an Osage person is killed–even while his character was the one responsible for all the grief to begin with. It’s horrible, but also a very real and poignant dichotomy to me, and Killers of the Flower Moon dances a fine line that few filmmakers other than Scorsese could have pulled off. See also: Silence, a religious drama that I think is Scorsese’ masterpiece.
Key to everything I like about Killers of the Flower Moon is its length. This thing is three hours and 26 minutes long, which is a very long time to sit in a theater, but that length is necessary. If anything, it’s not enough. Killers of the Flower Moon is an immersive experience that shows what you need to see instead of telling you what you need to know. It’s a day-in-the-life kind of story, putting you in these characters’ shoes as best it can–there’s actual depth to this telling, and the result is that by the end we feel Molly’s truth rather than simply knowing it.
Because of that, I’d have been okay with it going even longer. Killers of the Flower Moon is super long, yes, but that length, along with Scorsese’s filmmaking approach, allows us to really live with these characters and understand them in a meaningful way–but with more time, maybe we could have known them even better.