With many crime film hits through the decades, Martin Scorsese has often set the rules for the genre. The formula often involves fast-talking, violent mobsters breaking in and out of the criminal underworld. He returns to more historical trappings with Killers of the Flower Moon, another excellent production that embraces both heritage and a more emotive tone.
Based on the book of the same name, in the 1920s the Osage Nation has become very wealthy after the discovery of oil, triggering a flurry of settlers and business throughout the region. One of these settlers is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) who returns from World War One to work with his uncle. William King Hale (Robert De Niro) is a wealthy businessman who plans to exploit the native people and grow his own riches. While aiding his uncle’s racketeering, Ernest falls in love with Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone) and the two go through a long journey of loss and underhanded activities. The setting for Killers of the Flower Moon sets itself apart from the get-go. At first, the two communities seem to live together in harmony, but there are signs that something is amiss. The Osage people have concerns that their people are being erased while the white population is often more loyal to money than the local tribes. Firmly grounded in its time period, Killers of the Flower Moon is committed to a historical angle while moving away from typical mafia-based scenarios. It feels much more serious when compared to Scorsese’s previous flicks; comedic moments are used sparingly and the dialogue has also been scaled back heavily. This allows the film to take on more far-reaching themes including religious conflict, corruption and relations between Native tribes and the United States government. It’s a very long film at over three hours, but the narrative always keeps you engaged as the tensions rise.
With a mixture of caucasian and native actors, we have three brilliant main performances that line the extended runtime. They never falter for a second, representing different motivations towards the new oil rush. Ernest is somewhere in the middle; on the one hand he commits some underhanded deeds for financial gain but on the other he still cares for his wife and wider family. Watching him attempt to juggle the two sides and eventually winding up in trouble is great to watch. Robert De Niro is more understated; William King Hale always puts on a front, pretending to respect the Osage tribe while relentlessly pursuing his insurance pay-outs. Lily Gladstone is easily the best of the group; Molly acts as both a voice for her people and a conduit of immense grief as the film goes on. It’s a raw and incredibly performance that slowly ebbs with the long passage of time. Indeed, one of the film’s best elements is how it shows the growing animosity between native American and whites. Killers of the Flower Moon takes the time to sit down with both sides, pulling the audience into their perspectives and understanding their perspectives. The dramatic tension grows organically, leading to the brutal murders. Further down the line, the newly christened FBI enters the scene, represented by Tom White (Jesse Plemons). Despite having a fairly small role, his federal powers and level-headed approach still make an impression.
Expertly produced from top to bottom, Killers of the Flower Moon once again shows filmmaking talent at the peak of its powers. Camerawork, cinematography and period-piece designs are all impeccable. The most fascinating element is how the settlements change and grow over time. Ernest and Molly live in a simple allotment in the early going and by the end they have a full-blown family home. It speaks volumes of the development that took place; as hundreds of prospectors made their way to the Midwest, we see the immense change that took place; this seamlessly complements the story. Anyone familiar with the director’s work will know that every landscape and scene is framed to perfection; Killers has plenty of brilliant shots that transition smoothly between time and space. When the Osage people see an owl spirit or their ancestors, the moment is framed from their perspective. At other points the camera will pan around the environment and characters to deliver a complete view. A large wedding party and a fire burning around a patch of land are flawless in their execution. Of course, the soundtrack and costume work are equally strong with plenty of traditional items worn by the characters alongside string instruments that emphasise the countryside setting.
With a richly detailed story, excellent performances and stellar production values, Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterful release that offers up a compelling journey. The components of the crime genre have been reworked into something more poignant and thoughtful while the plight of the Osage nation is put front and centre in this real-life tale. Needless to say, this is easily the most engrossing film you’ll see in 2023.
Rating: 5/5 Stars (Exceptional)
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