Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Martin Scorsese is often cited as ‘the greatest living Director’, and it’s not hard to see why. He burst onto the scene in the early 1970s along with heavy hitters like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, yet unlike his iconic peers, Scorsese is still pumping out films as good as any of his classics. He has repeatedly pushed the envelope with such films as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006) and The Irishman (2019). Even his lesser films such as After Hours (1985), The Colour of Money (1986) and Cape Fear (1991), would be the best films of any other Director’s career. With that sort of track record, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) will be a fixture in cinematic discussions, regardless of where it ranks in his filmography.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo Di Caprio), an army chef who has moved to Osage County following the conclusion of World War I. Osage County was notable for the highly prosperous Native American community, who achieved immense riches through their control of the land’s stores of oil. While the indigenous people owned the oil, the reservation laws required caucasian men to manage their money, including Ernest’s uncle, ranch owner William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro). After taking up a job as a cab driver, Ernest meets Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a member of the Osage Nation whose family owns significant oil headrights. Ernest and Mollie fall in love and marry, but these happy times are soon undercut by a series of mysterious murders, with the victims all being Osage people, particularly Mollie’s own family.
Scorsese’s entire career is filled with stories about flawed, despicable, and sociopathic men doing violent things. It’s a wonder he has managed to continually find new angles to cover, otherwise viewers would’ve grown tired of his work a long time ago. Taxi Driver was about making the viewer feel fear for how easily everyday people could be radicalised into extreme actions, Goodfellas was about how evil men would still miss the thrill of their violent life even after they ‘turn over a new leaf’, and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was about how the rich will be lionised, even if they are horrible. So, what does Killers of the Flower Moon bring to Scorsese’s grand thesis on the evils of humanity? In a way, he may have landed on his most insidious group of criminals yet, as Killers of the Flower Moon, chillingly highlights how people can turn their hateful, exploitative and violent actions into something mundane, or even normal.
This is the key to Killers of the Flower Moon, as Scorsese actively avoids glorifying the horrors these characters are going through. There’s no overplayed, cinematic drama whenever violence occurs, meaning there’s absolutely no chance of any viewers mistakenly finding the graphic content to be enjoyable. The audience feels the lives lost as the murders pile up, fully experiencing the mourning the survivors of the Osage community are going through. It’s rare to find a film so committed to its bleakness, yet this approach reveals Scorsese’s sensitivity in highlighting the racial nature of the killings. The fact that the perpetrators often see the vile acts as not only justified, but completely uneventful makes it all especially painful.
With that in mind, the way in which Scorsese reveals the mundanity of the crimes is clever, as he plays on the viewers expectations that there will be a major reveal of the villain. This is part of how the film successfully utilises it’s deliberate pace and mammoth runtime, with the first hour or so playing out as a fairly innocuous and adorable love story, with no immediately recognisable signs that there’s anything dangerous at play. Once the crimes against the Osage begin, the audience starts to build assumptions as to who’s behind it all. Interestingly, the most logical answer seems far too obvious, thus the viewer will be waiting for the ‘real’ villain’s dramatic entrance. However, once the many ‘reveals’ come into play, they are staged without drama. When looking back on the build up, you realise that at no point was Scorsese trying to deceive, which makes it even more unnerving that the viewer didn’t immediately suspect the guilty. It’s as if Scorsese is saying ‘no, your instincts were correct, you just didn’t notice at first because none of these horrible people acted like suspicious criminals. The scary thing is that they all seemed as normal as you or me’.
Additionally, Killers of the Flower Moon arguably delivers more richly complex character development, social commentary, and emotional thematics than many films in Scorsese’s recent history. He has unpacked discussions around greed, guilt, religion, family, community, gender roles, death and identity many times before, but Killers of the Flower Moon’s socio-political lens breathes extra dimensions into all of his well-worn story layers. It’s very apparent that this story deeply and emotionally affected Scorsese, especially given that the hardships of an entire community have been mostly forgotten through the passage of time. As such, Scorsese has tied his love of storytelling to his activism, making the ending of the film a commentary on the power narrative has to both enhance and dilute important messages. On that note, the exact manner in which the film wraps up will surely split opinions and won’t work for everyone, but it’s a bold choice which makes his personal feelings clear.
Killers of the Flower Moon’s runtime will surely test the attention span of even the most patient viewer. The film clocks in at a whopping three hours and 26 minutes, so it’s a miracle it remains relatively engaging for the majority of that stretch. Things start to feel indulgent once the third act kicks into gear, as the myriad of court cases, inquisitions, interviews and depositions blend together. This section also feels like a verbal recap of the preceding 165 minutes, as the characters continually confirm their part in all of the events we already saw, and already know, they had a hand in. Narratively speaking, the extended wrap up serves its purposes and manages to highlight a handful of the most heartbreaking and thematically rich moments, but it is frustrating to note that the edit still could’ve been significantly shaved down. Either that, or Killers of the Flower Moon makes a strong case for the return of intermissions.
Killers of the Flower Moon may not be Scorsese’s best film, but it is possibly one of the most powerful stories he has ever told. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll be delivering films of this size and grandeur for much longer, but the fact that he’s still managing to do so into his 80s is impressive. At the tail end of his career, he is still showing all the young filmmakers out there what can be achieved with cinematic storytelling, which is probably why he can safely be called the greatest living Director.
Best way to watch it: With an intermission. Please. Bring intermissions back. We beg you.