KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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To the Osage, the flower moon occurs when tiny flowers sprout over the hills in waves of color. Then taller plants pop up among them, stealing their water and sunshine, eventually killing them—the forces that doom them lying among them all along.

The film Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t hammer home the metaphor that author David Grann introduced in his best-selling 2017 book of the same name. But this intricate crime drama about the real-life slayings on the Osage Nation over the inheritance of oil rights gives director Martin Scorsese other allegories. The evil of White supremacy. The poison of greed. The betrayal of native people overall.

After discovering oil on their Oklahoma reservation, the Osage found themselves the richest people per capita on Earth by the early twentieth century—and a prime target for Whites wanting their money. Black-and-white newsreels here stoke wonder and resentment of their good fortune, with Osage women wearing furs, Osage men with White chauffeurs, all smiling at country clubs and universities in the fashions of the day.

By the time federal lawmen arrived to get to the bottom of this, in both the book and the film, more than 30 Osage died, some with no investigation at all.

The film takes a different tactic than Grann’s book, smartly changing it from a whodunit to what Scorsese has called a “who didn’t do it.” The screenplay by Eric Roth (Dune) and Scorsese shows the corruption and conspiracy widespread from the outset, spending much of the running time (three and a half hours) in this rough environment with a veneer of civilization.

Viewers enter the story through Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, Don’t Look Up), fresh off duty as a World War I infantry cook, who arrives in the boomtown of Fairfax seeking work, or at least a way to earn money without doing much.

His cattle-baron uncle, Bill Hale (Robert De Niro, Amsterdam), who insists people call him “King,” suggests he can be a livery driver, then asks if Ernest likes women. He presents another idea: marrying an Osage woman with a full-blood estate to send that money their way.

Ernest isn’t smart enough to target and woo a woman to dupe her—DiCaprio plays him with a furrowed brow, as if in a near-constant state of confusion—but he loves money, and he genuinely falls in love with Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage woman whose family Hale has known for years. DiCaprio and Gladstone (Reservation Dogs) make their feelings believable, even as Mollie loses one relative after another, unsure of whom she can trust beyond her husband.

The law requires that Mollie and other Osage have White guardians who manage how they spend their money, but Mollie isn’t stupid. She knows people want her wealth and calls Ernest a coyote in Osage soon after they meet. In a moment the filmmakers say was ad-libbed, DiCaprio quips that must mean “handsome devil,” triggering Gladstone’s genuine laugh.

Later, when Ernest shows he understands what she’s saying in Osage, she’s impressed, the two of them flirting over whiskey, cigarettes, and frank talk about laziness and life’s finer things. He might be a coyote, but he’s handsome, Mollie tells her sisters, who think he can’t want her money since his uncle has plenty. How wrong they were.

The production design by Jack Fisk (The Revenant), set decoration, and art direction create an immersive world, from the lush but dark rooms of Hale’s house and the local Mason lodge to the grimy settlement streets, which seem one step away from chaos. Costume designer Jacqueline West (Dune) helps establish the social caste of the period in intricate detail, from the moonshiners in the woods to the tribal council, Ernest’s tailored suits and Mollie’s traditional garb, including her wedding outfit of a feathered hat and military coat.

The score by the late Robbie Robertson and cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (The Irishman) craft other metaphors. Young Osage men dance in an oil gush that coats their bodies like the bloodshed to come. Mollie and Ernest recline in their bedroom, shades drawn, ranch fires turning the windows golden and red, like they’re in their own hell.

Mollie is one of the few women in the center of Scorsese’s long filmography, and Gladstone is a magnetic presence, with more going on behind her eyes in some scenes than she reveals. Wrapped in a traditional blanket she likens to a target on her back, she swings from cautious and pensive to passionate, headstrong, and broken, wailing in heartbreak. I left the film wanting to know more about her. Scorsese is telling a wider, epic story here, which at times necessitates omitting Mollie’s point of view, but I wanted to know how much she suspected, what compromises she knew she made. Her mother (Tantoo Cardinal, Three Pines) tells her their people are dying because of her and her sisters marrying White men. Aside from Mollie’s love for Ernest, was there ever another option?

De Niro is impressive as the mastermind Hale, manipulating Ernest and others with a smooth patter and a smile. He publicly speaks Osage and calls the tribal leaders his friends, then tells Ernest and others how they’re a “sickly people” and wonders how his nephew can “stand their kind.”

The blatant racism is astounding. The KKK, robes on but masks up, marches in a parade through town. Ernest’s white relatives compare the skin tones of his and Mollie’s children. People balk at being hired to kill someone, then sign on when the target is “an Indian.” Even Ernest asks the undertaker not to steal jewelry from the casket of his sister-in-law, then blows up at the man for charging him “Osage prices.”

Federal agents led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog) arrive eventually, turning the film into a courtroom drama, but before then, the Osage muse they should have known this wealth came with strings, threats circling them “like buzzards.” Scorsese shows the leaders frustrated and powerless as they speak to White, crowded into medium frame shots as they say how they can’t attack who’s after them because there are too many.

The pacing in Killers of the Flower Moon never drags, but it’s a challenge in one sitting. (Anyone concerned about restroom breaks might prefer to wait for its arrival on Apple TV+.) A late recap of this tragic business in another format, along with the newsreels, questions how who writes the story creates the narrative of history.

“There might be a public outcry for a while, but then they forget,” one character says. In many ways, Killers of the Flower Moon is much like other tales of crime and betrayal that have long fascinated Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed), but it’s also a necessary reckoning he’s ensured we’ll remember.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.