'Killers of the Flower Moon' Review
October 18, 2023
The question that has perpetually hanged over director Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Western Killers of the Flower Moon is the justification for the history-making 206-minute runtime. It’s a question of excess that has doggedly followed Scorsese for over five decades now, a curse that besieges anyone who pushes conventions past their preconceived limits. Did the climactic shootout in Taxi Driver have to be so graphic? Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have to consummate their marriage in The Last Temptation of Christ? Did Joe Pesci have to pop a rival mobster's eye out of its socket with a vice grip in Casino? Did the characters have to swear so much in The Wolf of Wall Street?
Time and time again Scorsese has proved us wrong about what should and shouldn’t be in film. Killers of the Flower Moon is no different as several scenes would have been trimmed or fully excised in 99.9% of productions. And yet, none of those scenes felt superfluous, and there wasn’t a single one I wasn't fully invested in. It’s the mark of a master, someone who pieces the puzzle together with perfection while still keeping the magic alive by masking how he did it.
Similar to Ridley Scott, Scorsese shows no signs of slowing down as reaches octogenarian status. Just as there was little surprise surrounding the length of the film (the man literally hasn’t released a film under 120 minutes in almost 40 years), nothing is shocking about Scorsese’s ability to fill the frame with operatic grandeur. The camera charges in, Robbie Robertson’s beating score resembles rock music as much as it can within the period, and the streets are bustling with lively characters. There’s a distinctly rowdy energy to everything, something that Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker have honed and perfected throughout their decades-long partnership.
What is surprising about Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese’s ability to bring in the qualities of his lesser-known films, which is the capacity to take a step back and observe a culture. There’s a delicate balance between getting in the thick of the action and letting it wash over from a distance. For every street race and moment of shocking violence, there’s a chance to witness a piece of this land and its people. There are key moments where an Osage wedding or ceremonial tradition is recreated, shedding light on what’s ultimately at stake.
Unfortunately for the Osage people, funerals were a more common occurrence than weddings at the turn of the 20th century. There’s nothing more dangerous in America than a man’s greed, and that snake has taken hold of the original people of Oklahoma. White people are the immigrants in Osage County, all of them pouring in to get a piece of the oil deposit pie. Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of them. He’s a soldier returning home from Europe, settling in to live with his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), who prides himself on his great relations with the Osage people. They are an alpha and beta pair, William the scheming mastermind, and Enrest the slack-jawed underling. The prize in everyone’s eyes is the “headrights” that each Osage member has, essentially a legal claim to a portion of the oil money. If a white man marries an Osage woman and she dies later on, those rights are solely transferred to the husband.
Mollie (Lily Gladstone) is moderately aware of William’s tactics when he encourages Ernest to take an interest in her. But she can’t deny her feelings for Ernest, who genuinely cares for her throughout all his misdeeds. Their doomed relationship is beautifully portrayed by each actor, Gladstone being the film’s (and Scorsese’s) emotionally richest character, and DiCaprio weaponizing his charm to sinister results.
De Niro is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, casting a shadow of death on each of the Osage he touches. There is the introduction of the FBI a little before the film reaches its third hour, led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons). But the injustice never ends, something Scorsese highlights with his “swinging for the fences” ending that recontextualizes much of what has just been witnessed.
Excess is the name of the game within Scorsese’s filmography, and Killers of the Flower Moon has that in spades. But it’s not the flashy kind of excess that we’re used to seeing, it’s an excess that overwhelms your soul just as much as your senses. As the debate over what is and isn’t cinema rages on (and I pray to God it ends soon), let this be a clear illustration of what it can be: something powerful enough to enrapture you in the present and pleasantly linger with you long into the future.