​'Killers of the Flower Moon' Is a Sensitive Look at a Brutal Moment in History

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser

BY Paul DikaPublished Oct 18, 2023

At the age of 80, Martin Scorsese is, perhaps unknowingly, dominating the internet's film discourse. Whether he's endearing himself to Gen Z by flexing his knowledge of modern slang on his daughter's TikTok or enraging Marvel fans by rehashing his lack of interest in comic book movies, it's only meant more buzz for Killers of the Flower Moon, his first feature since 2019's The Irishman. After years of delays, the conversation can finally pivot back to his work. 

With Killers of the Flower Moon, he continues and strengthens his run of unparalleled success with an epic that recounts the true story of discrimination, abuse and murder faced by the Osage Nation at the hands of white Americans. 

The film follows Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), a soldier returning from war, travelling to the oil-rich Osage territory to work for his uncle, Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), a powerful and wealthy cattle rancher who insists people refer to him as "King." Bill puts Ernest to work as a driver for Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a single Osage woman living on the Oklahoma reservation with her family.

Immediately, Bill suggests that, if Ernest marries into Mollie's wealthy family, the ownership of their oil and land will eventually be entitled to Ernest. As Mollie grows to trust and love Ernest, they decide to marry. What follows is a series of murders and suspicious deaths in the community and within Mollie's family, which go ignored due to the corruption and prejudice from Osage enemies on and off their land. 

Scorsese navigates the entire story, including the relationship between Mollie and Ernest, with precision — never dragging and never rushing. He gives the film the time it needs (which happens to be three and a half hours) to breathe and develop, chronicling the trajectory of the couple's marriage, the traumatic events experienced by the Osage and the eventual investigation launched by the federal government, handling them all with care and compassion.

Across his filmography, Scorsese has typically presented his anti-heroes with a sense of vulnerability; in Killers of the Flower Moon, the director makes it clear that Bill, Ernest and their network of murderers and conspirators do not deserve any degree of sympathy. There are those directly involved in the violence, those who turn a blind eye, and those who stand idly by while the Osage and their culture are eradicated; though there are varying levels of involvement, Scorsese regularly portrays these men as self-interested oafs unworthy of trust.

Mollie and her sisters outwardly voice that distrust and feel the threat of the outsiders around them. They identify the white men who come to Osage lands as unmotivated freeloaders, lacking the spiritual maturity of the men from their own community. The trains that roll into town bring with them strange faces that stare through Mollie and her family, only focused on their next money-making scam. Ernest arrives on the same train, and Scorsese paints him as no different. 

Scorsese consistently juxtaposes Bill and his allies, including Ernest, with the values, culture and communal ideologies of the Osage. Mollie battles diabetes over the course of the film, and yet looking after her family remains the priority, while Ernest only acts out of self-interest. Mollie's values reflect those of her community, and Scorsese captures the spirituality, tradition and importance of culturally significant events for the Osage, whether they're celebrations of life or wedding scenes. But as the events of the film unfold, the dynamics begin to change, and Scorsese hones in on the consequences of the evil acts committed by the hands of Bill and his men. 

The narrative flows through Ernest, and, once again, DiCaprio is up to the task of carrying another Scorsese epic. But it's Lily Gladstone's performance that will leave a lasting impression. Mollie is at the centre of so many important moments in the film, and Gladstone takes them on so convincingly, and with very little dialogue. Subtle facial expressions, whether reacting or processing, convey the pain and sorrow her character, and so many around her, carry. Scorsese knows he's working with a special talent based on how often he opts for a close-up of Gladstone in an emotional moment.

Rounding out the cast, De Niro delivers his most memorable performance in years, capturing the imposing, intimidating and manipulative characteristics of one of the most vile men in American history. Bill claims to have everyone's best interests in mind, and De Niro plays each scene like he's after something, even if it's feigning a friendship or pretending to mourn a death.   

Scorsese is no stranger to exploring the ugly side of American culture, and with Killers of the Flower Moon, he has done so from a place of sensitivity, understanding and care. He continues to get better with age, and those who suggest he can only thrive in one genre are sorely mistaken. 

Showing no signs of slowing down, Scorsese maintains his legacy as one of America's greatest filmmakers of all time with another monumental achievement for a monumental career.
(Apple Studios)

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