Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, US)

By Robert Koehler

Despite what you may have heard from some breathless movie critics, 2023 was a year of further decline for American cinema. But there was a promising inflection point: the year marked a moment when the seemingly unstoppable empire of Marvel began its long-overdue decline even as Marvel’s Enemy Number One, Martin Scorsese, ended the year with the aura of artistic triumph. His long-in-the-making adaptation of New Yorker writer David Grann’s true-crime saga, Killers of the Flower Moon, is the best movie he’s ever made. The extreme thoroughness, subtlety, and thought invested in this project indicate that, as Scorsese moves into his Joe Biden years, he has evolved into a more nuanced, more complex film artist. 

Recently, and for the first time in a while, I rewatched Taxi Driver (1976), which many have been all too willing to slot as Scorsese’s (and writer Paul Schrader’s) early masterwork. What I saw was an overwrought and obvious melodrama held together primarily by nighttime visual poetics and Robert De Niro’s unbridled, hell’s-bells performance. Too often with Scorsese, the moral argument is blunt and crude, limned with simple takes on the running theme of guilt, revealing a certain fear of trusting the audience to draw its own conclusions in the way, for instance, that Abbas Kiarostami rigorously constructed his open-ended narratives. Scorsese has always depended on outside material and/or a screenwriting partner (such as Schrader), unwilling (or unable) to take on the classical auteurist position as sole original writer-director. 

Starting with Goodfellas (1990), he tacked in a new direction—non-fiction historical sagas, sometimes with dramatic inspiration from the Warner Bros. crime vault. These have yielded a few brilliant movies, the standouts being the Nicholas Pileggi collaborations Goodfellas and, especially, Casino (1995), which also derived some of its imaginative effect from Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955). For the most part, though, these films—including Kundun (1997), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)—have been big, bloated projects with massive casts and ample servings of bad David Lean: overtly self-important yet strangely impersonal chronicles, varying unevenly in energy and imagination, lumbering with the mechanical process of doom foretold.

What sets Killers of the Flower Moon apart from this company stems from Scorsese’s well-reported failure with his first pass at Grann’s book, which took a wrong turn so noticeable that, upon reading it, the film’s star Leonardo DiCaprio suggested to Scorsese that he needed to start over. The book details, in chillingly granular detail, one of the darkest and bloodiest forgotten passages in American history: what Grann refers to as the “Reign of Terror” took place in north-central Oklahoma’s Osage County from roughly 1921 to 1924, where whites conspired to murder members of the Osage Nation for their “headrights”—i.e., legal ownership of land containing vast deposits of oil, which had lifted the Osage from desperate poverty to the wealthiest group per capita in the country. 

In the book’s first section, which focuses on the killings largely through the prism of stalwart Mollie Kyle, who had married white WWI vet Ernest Burkhart, Grann frames his historical account as a mystery. At the outset, the reader has no idea who is behind the astonishing string of deaths surrounding Mollie, which eventually claims all of her sisters and her mother. Though some of the victims die under circumstances suggesting murder, they meet their respective ends by so many different means that a serial-killer theory can be quickly ruled out.

Perhaps seduced by Grann’s subtitle, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, Scorsese was initially drawn to the book’s second section, on how what was then known simply as the Bureau of Investigation ultimately solved the baroque case—a truly gripping account of how law and order triumphed, at least for a moment, over pure evil. However, in emphasizing this part of the story in his initial draft, Scorsese found that this compelling yarn of powerful bad men being finally brought to justice backgrounded the crucial stories of Mollie and the Osage as a whole. By eventually recognizing this error, Scorsese and his longtime screenwriting collaborator Eric Roth not only properly placed their adaptation’s emphasis on the book’s first section, but also turned Grann’s mystery into a suspense movie by unveiling early on the conspiracy mastermind who Grann finally reveals two-thirds of the way into the book. 

The film opens with William Hale (Robert De Niro), a powerfully influential white rancher in Osage County, taking in his nephew Ernest (DiCaprio), a Hemingwayesque broken man desperate to reinvent his life and all too willing to accept Hale’s apparent beneficence and patronage. The characters of Hale and Ernest are more vividly drawn here than in the book, where the dictates of journalism and available facts keep Hale somewhat abstract and distanced. De Niro’s Hale, by contrast, is commanding and fearsome but also a serious listener and genuinely loving toward his beleaguered nephew, even as he immediately sees in him an easy subject for his glad-handing manipulation; DiCaprio’s Ernest, meanwhile, bearing a lifetime’s worth of scars and worn down by events beyond his control, is all too easily attracted to the colour of money. 

Ernest’s shades of kindness and tenderness emerge as he becomes a driver for Mollie (Lily Gladstone, likewise bringing more layers to the character than does Grann in his depiction), who gradually loses her initial skepticism about this white man’s overeager courtship of her and genuinely falls in love with him. Scorsese’s films have had their share of difficult marriages, but none as complex as this one, which is made even more so by the couple’s vast cultural differences. The movie’s story depends on a foundational understanding that Ernest and Mollie love each other, even despite the growing storm of death swirling around Mollie’s family—which isn’t simply matriarchal but infused with a powerful female energy that recalls Chekhov’s three sisters (in this case, four), all of them women of distinct individuality, strengths, and weaknesses that eventually lead them to their own tragically distinctive ends. 

The question that Killers of the Flower Moon asks—can true love and genuine exchanges of mutual care operate in parallel with a patiently hatched plot of cold-blooded mendacity and slow-burn murder?—takes the film far past the chaotic relationships at the core of Raging Bull (1980) or Casino and into the moral crosscurrents of Dostoevsky, who is the true literary spirit of the movie. A strange condition of benign evil governs some of the film’s characters, lifting them beyond the confines of true-crime journalism. One can imagine a cartoon version of “King” Hale that could have tempted De Niro toward a caricature of pure evil, fun to play but easily dismissed. But De Niro, along with DiCaprio and Gladstone, take the harder road, no doubt inspired by knowing that Scorsese was determined to take his sweet time laying the groundwork for them and allowing the story’s events to properly play out. This kind of time allows the actors to find space for small, barely detectable expressions and movements that can nonetheless speak volumes about the people they inhabit. Watch Gladstone’s steady gestures and bodily shifts, as Mollie is shadowed by the dark knowledge that she is trying to fathom. Observe the confusion on DiCaprio’s face when he first arrives in the oil boomtown to see wealthy Native Americans wearing fur coats and being chauffeured in limos, his expression containing everything the movie needs to say about threatened white privilege. Examine De Niro’s shape-shifting mask of smiles that conceals a mind teeming with plots seemingly 24 hours a day. 

Having found the right course for this story and assembled his lineup of gifted actors from the leading trio right down to the smallest roles, Scorsese plays his string out all the way to the film’s glorious ending: an epilogue brimming with both grand irony (and managing an amusing dig at the media’s obsession with true-crime sagas) and an elegant beauty (in a bird’s-eye view of an Osage drum ceremony) that transcends those absolute worst aspects of human nature that this bloody history has laid bare. A Scorsese picture that resolves as light as a feather, as profound as a 19th-century Russian tale—who would have expected that?

rkoehler@cinema-scope.com Koehler Robert