Director Martin Scorsese’s latest film Killers of the Flower Moon dramatises David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same title. It details the murder and defrauding of many Native American Osage (or Wazhazhe as they refer to themselves) people during the 1920s after they discovered oil on their land in Osage County, Oklahoma. This tribe became the wealthiest people in America but it was not long before members of the white population of Osage sought to claim the wealth and power of the Osage tribe for themselves, using whatever fraudulent and murderous ways necessary. The film follows the lives of a prominent political and community figure William Hale (Robert De Niro), his dim-witted nephew Earnest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone), the daughter of a prominent, oil-rich Osage family.
As expected, De Niro and DiCaprio are fantastic. Though Earnest Burkhart is objectively a dullard with few dimensions, DiCaprio manages to capture every millimetre of his tiny nuance and complexity. We see his greed and selfishness yet also glimmers of his genuine care and love, making us feel sorry for him when his missing intelligence is so obviously manipulated by others. At this, we are then forced to examine our own consciences to ask ourselves whether he deserves this sympathy. A question that is never fully answered even by the drive home from the cinema. He also manages to sustain the face of a bulldog throughout the film and that’s quite a challenge for the average set of facial muscles.
De Niro excellently embodies the confidence, charisma, and mock kindliness necessary for the role of a self-important business and political figure. From the first meeting with William Hale, there is something distrustful about him that you cannot quite put your finger on and this feeling lingers for hours into the film. Though he seems caring, something malevolent lurks behind the smile and impossibly round glasses.
The most surprising performance comes from the comparatively little-known Lily Gladstone. She brings such calm and decorum to an occasionally frantic character set, and manages to capture everything that the whole film wants to portray about the Osage tribe. She glides from place to place with the face of serenity and a knowing wisdom in her eye. Such calm does not mean, however, that she underperforms during her character’s trying and tragic moments: she can howl, sob, and suffer with the best of them. The stark comparison between her character and that of Ernest Burkhart is the best character example of the wider cultural difference between the White and the Native American communities of Osage County, and the best example of this character difference can be seen when Earnest’s contorting face and body maniacally yells criticisms of Osage medicinal practice into the unflinching calm of Mollie’s.
The portrayal of the culture clash between the White Americans and the Native Americans, though executed perfectly by the style, music, and cinematography of the film, makes for uncomfortable viewing. In this film, the two cultures never gel, even in inter-racial marriages and households built on supposed love and commonality. The whiplashing between scenes of calm landscape vistas accompanied by Native American music and those of car racing or street hustle to the tune of bluegrass music is jarring and shows that, in this film as well as in history, the two cultures never harmonise, making tension inevitable. To non-Americans, this aspect of history is little known (or perhaps I am just ignorant) as historical and media focus remains on the conflict between Natives and colonists during the initial European discovery of America. It was peculiar at first to see Native Americans attending church or climbing into cars as most of their non-American media representation is stuck in the 17th and 18th centuries.
There is a peculiar, slightly meta moment at the end of the film in which the scene changes from any previously seen location or cast to a theatre in which jolly actors narrate the story’s conclusion with props and homemade sound effects. There is a slight disgust watching a paying audience lean in to hear the story’s conclusion with the glint of a macabre fetish for true-crime in their eyes. After watching over three hours of horror and injustice, it seems sad that the stories of real people serve as light entertainment for this fictional theatre. At this point, however, any self-aware audience member will realise that this historical event now serves as entertainment in real theatres with us as the paying audience members who lean in to hear more. I wondered whether this scene was trying to say something about the increase in true crime docuseries on modern television and left the cinema with an uneasy feeling of vague guilt.
Well, I say that this film is 'entertainment in real theatres' but, at 206-buttock-numbing-minutes long, perhaps it would be better defined as covert military endurance training. Debates over the length of Martin Scorsese films can continue as long as the films themselves, but there are some scenes in this film that are unnecessary to both the plot and scene setting. Despite its length, however, this film never becomes boring and the length actually works in its creative favour. As the film condenses several years of real time into only a few hours, it would be easy for the sense of duration of the real events to be lost in a cinematic rendering of them. As it is, however, there are often gaps of several hours between on-screen murders, so when killings from early in the film are discussed at the end, the audience can feel for themselves that they happened a long time ago and therefore better understand the frustration of the Osage people when there continues to be no judicial or media investigations into the crimes, despite their quantity and duration of several years. This narrative contains evil of the most pernicious kind that hides in plain sight behind the linen-suited, benign smiles of authority figures, and the length of the film manages to reflect the slowly but surely destructive force of these criminals.
So, for a thought-provoking, oftentimes bleak watch that exemplifies both an under-represented area of American history and the acting and directing skills of some of America’s finest cinema talent, be sure to add Killers of the Flower Moon to your diary; just be sure to clear out a few weeks to do so.
Share This Post On
Leave a comment
You need to login to leave a comment. Log-in