No, it’s not too long. Martin Scorsese’s newest epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, stimulates the senses, shocks our complacencies, and uncovers a world of treachery otherwise unexplored in the general American culture, all while reminding us of the inherent power of the picture.
The film opens in 1920’s Oklahoma; the small town of Fairfax, to be exact. In Fairfax, the Osage Indian tribe are the wealthiest people per capita in the entire world, due to federal subsidies in exchange for the copious amounts of oil hidden beneath their tribal land. Enter Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a war vet and working-class White man who comes to live with his Uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro). King is incredibly calculated in the efforts to marry his family into the Osage tribe and inherit the buoyant fortunes they possess. Working as a driver, Ernest chums up to Molly (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman, and the two fall in love and eventually marry.
Suddenly, a string of mysterious deaths plagues the Osage, particularly Molly’s family. The tribe grows suspicious of the circumstances, but not of the Hale’s, who are spearheading the killings behind closed doors. Ernest, like Hale, must maintain his innocent façade while caring for Molly, sickened with mourning and type 2 diabetes. Ernest and King’s plans to kill their way into the Osage fortune are upended, when some unknown detectives from the federal government come to town, at the behest of the tribal leaders and Molly, to get to the bottom of the deaths.
Inspired by the real-life saga of the Osage murders and adapted from the biographical book by David Grann (a must-read for American history buffs), this is a film that is full to the brim of visual and literary treasures; the elder burial of the ceremonial pipe, the spread of wildflowers over the Oklahoma reservations (called the “flower moon”), the phantom of an owl pronouncing an imminent death. Meanwhile, it is also a stark portrait of prescient greed.
Though it may appear in Western-genre clothing, it is, at its core, a gangster movie. Like all Scorsese gangster movies (Goodfellas, Gangs of New York), there is but a morsel of conscience. The world, indeed, is sinister. Men following the orders of their superior, with some remorse that, like a poisoned flower, cannot break through the soil of ever-piling consequences.
DeNiro and DiCaprio lead a master cast of conniving characters that mask themselves in an unassuming, friendly-neighbor shell. Newcomer Lily Gladstone gives quiet subtlety and grace to the forlorn Molly, and some familiar faces pop up (Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow) near the film’s third act.
It is a downright remarkable feat: a simulation of a society, created only to rob and gain power while creating the genocide of a land’s native people. Scorsese is a foremost champion of eliciting the best of human behavior by showing the worst of human behavior.
I’d be remiss not to mention the film’s music, composed by the late, great, Robbie Robertson shortly before his recent passing, which wonderfully combines tribal and a bit of blues to evoke heartbeat, sadness, and tension.
While the film is an absolute masterwork, it is not to be enjoyed. In today’s harrowing era of book-banning, whitewashing, and outright erasure of the most delicate moments in our country’s history, this film is the medicine for a healthy and humble society. The greatest act of rebellion in the information age is the truth, and the truth must often be coated in metaphor to be digested. It’s, nevertheless, incumbent upon us to be a knowing people, and to even attempt to grasp the horrors embedded in the real-life background of Flower Moon is essential.
There is this recent idea that has circulated about how movies are somehow worse than ever solely because they include “woke” commentary on human social behavior, rather than plain-Jane thrills.
“I don’t want to see something I won’t enjoy. Can’t we just have entertainment and not a sermon?”
No. By that logic, let’s never again watch The Ten Commandments, or The Sound of Music, or Saving Private Ryan. To underestimate the value of experience is ignorance by choice. To the yapping critics of the modern accomplishments of storytelling in American film, I humbly demand: grow up, sit down, and experience what’s in front of you.
Yes, the film has great performances, great imagery, stellar music, and fantastic writing, but do not downplay the significance of this motion picture. It is the most devastating film of the year.
Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.