When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, Eli Burkhart and his uncle William Hale hatch a devious plan to extract riches from the native population in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
What is left to say about “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the latest accomplished endeavor from America’s best director of all time, Martin Scorsese? I leave the discerning dissertations on the film’s ruminations on white supremacy and its poisoning of Native American culture to the experts. For me, I want to focus on how the film develops a fascinating subversion of Scorsese’s sensibilities.
Scorsese continues crafting a career from the dredges of amorality. With iconic features like “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the director walks a finite tightrope. He initially lulls viewers into the criminal underbelly’s allures, capturing the glitz and glamor deriving from a life of endless luxuries and carefree behaviors. Shortly after indulging in these splendors, Scorsese pulls the rug out from under his characters and the audience, exposing nefarious figures to the karmic justice earned from their amoral actions.
In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Scorsese ditches this duality entirely and, in a fascinating late-career maturation, reflects on this approach’s limitations. The film is oppressively somber, never batting an eye at exposing the traumatic horrors that the Osage population faced due to the insatiable hunger for stature and wealth by nefarious figures. The actions of Eli and William are never sensationalized, and their impact on Mollie Burkhart, Eli’s Osage wife, who is used as part of his schemes, is deeply felt in the material’s bleak undertones. The transgressions committed against the Osage sledgehammer viewers throughout the film’s sprawling three-and-a-half-hour runtime, rarely letting up in its sincere yet painful reflections on the casualties stemming from greed and white nationalism.
Once the film builds towards its third act crescendo, Scorsese reveals a thought-provoking ace up his sleeve. Shades of overly theatrical notes appear from the shadows, with a crucial court case and subsequent media reports transforming the first two act’s complexities into an almost farcical affair. There is no definitive gavel of justice to rectify the misdeeds, and emotional solace ultimately remains more elusive than ever for the Osage population.
Through these choices, Scorsese acknowledges that, despite noble intentions, his craft can never comprehensively articulate the tragedy endured by his Osage subjects. In fact, any historical retelling from an outsider’s perspective will always be encumbered and risk sinking into exploitative territory. Reckoning with this fact is a valiant self-critique that few other stalwart directors would even dare to attempt. I cannot admire Scorsese enough for challenging the notion of what historical retellings can actually accomplish artistically. Can maturation be discovered by illustrating the trauma of a minority population by a cultural outsider, or is it all just a pointless act of insincere altruism?
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is also accomplished outside its challenging subtext. Scorsese’s elegant yet flare-free camerawork seizes a stronghold on viewers’ attention, while his intricate eye for period details helps create a fully inhabited world. Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro deliver remarkable performances as grimey figures hiding under their slick veneers, yet Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart leaves the most profound impact. Her insular performance work simmers under the surface, conveying the weight of generational pain that further intensifies with each misdeed.
To no one’s surprise, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a masterful work. It is saddening to think we might only have a few new Scorsese films left. I hope audiences savor these opportunities while they still last.