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Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s Mob-Like Western is one for the Ages


Killers of the Flower Moon preview screening provided by Apple Original Films

Killers of the Flower Moon is vintage Scorsese”

It was four years ago that I hailed The Irishman (2019) as the capstone to Martin Scorsese’s illustrious career, but the legendary director has once again pushed and outdone himself with The Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). Adapted from David Grann’s best-selling novel of the same name, this film sees Scorsese repurpose his signature mob interests and gang violence to tackle a story set far from New York, against the backdrop of 1920’s Oklahoma, in what is his first Western.

The Great Depression hasn’t yet kicked in, people are still coming to terms with the aftermath of WW1, and in Oklahoma the Osage tribe is swimming in oil money from the lands they’ve been allowed to settle on. For the rather charming, unintelligent yet cunning war cook Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) –– a character that feels like he’s been pulled straight from a John Steinbeck novel –– it’s time to find a new purpose now that the war is over. That comes in the form of catering to his affluent cattle ranch uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a steadfast man with conviction who gets what he wants at all costs. For Hale, Ernest represents opportunity, and opportunity equals money, which comes in the form of marrying into a wealthy Osage family and acquiring their “headrights” through some dirty tactics. 

If this sounds like the sort of top to bottom, ‘apprentice-does-masters-bidding’ story that has characterised a significant portion of Scorsese’s oeuvre, that’s because it is. And that’s fine because testing loyalties, watching people crumble under the weight of their own ambitions, and then living to see another day is the essence of those films and is where Scorsese thrives. For Ernest, his prospects of seeing another day rest on him fulfilling Hale’s request to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a woman he’s chauffeuring, before gradually ‘taking out’ the rest of her family members and eventually her. 

Mollie isn’t blind though, she sees through Ernest’s intentions to marry for wealth but is still drawn to him, and Gladstone plays her with a distant edge, very poised body language and a subtlety in facial expressions. But as the film progresses, Scorsese tears her resilience down through the deaths of those closest to her, ultimately leaving her sprawled across her bed and a shell of the person she once was. 

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Killers of the Flower Moon," coming soon to Apple TV+.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” coming soon to Apple TV+.

It’s because of this very matter-of-fact approach to the story that Killers of the Flower Moon is as devastating as it is. By bringing the audience in on the details of what’s happening to Mollie’s family and other Osage people at an early stage, the ensuing deceit that Hale, Ernest and others deliver through their lies becomes ever more impactful than if those details were revealed at a later stage. And it’s probably to the film’s advantage that this approach is taken given this is a 206 minute rollercoaster that benefits from as much inside-info and hand-holding as possible, especially with various plot points and characters jumping in and out and being revisited later on. 

Where the first half of the film focuses more on laying those sinister seeds of betrayal, the second half really propels the film into life with Scorsese’s signature bust-ups and beat downs serving to provide some relief and a nice break away from the heaviness of it all. When they do occur they’re often brutal because they’re so raw in how they occur.

When it comes to characters and the actors that play them, DiCaprio is brilliant as Ernest, playing him as a man of two minds to the point where at times it’s hard to pinpoint whether he does truly love Mollie and is conflicted about his choices or whether he is as committed to Hale as he says he is. Obviously that becomes clear late in the third act, but it speaks to DiCaprio’s expansive toolkit. De Niro is equally brilliant, with his performance as Hale echoing the bluntness and cadence of characters like Sam Rothstein in Casino (1995) or James Conway in Goodfellas (1990) ––– in other words, it’s a role he could nail in his sleep. 

The way that Scorsese stages his film and blocks his actors allows for those performances to shine through, especially when it comes to building tension as he cleverly uses space within the frame to give a sense of foreboding doom. It helps that the $200 million dollar budget translates to a film that looks every bit of that amount, whether it’s in Jack Fisk’s meticulous production design or Rodrigo Prieto’s very nurtured, contained cinematography ––– the film feels of a time and place long past. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker also keeps the film chugging along in what feels like the fastest three and a half hours at the cinema this year. 

Killers of the Flower Moon feels like the sum of all the best parts of Scorsese’s oeuvre, and that’s not just in the little tell-tales and visual cues that scream Scorsese, but more in terms of how this film balances tension, develops character, incorporates louder moments with more muted ones, communicates more heavy handed themes like greed and corruption in a digestible way, and all while feeling fresh in the process. The Irishman was similar, but this is Scorsese outside of that world and yet never too far from it, proving that he can tackle stories that seem out of his wheelhouse (not that there was any doubt he could). It’s hard to imagine a time where he’s not in the directors seat anymore, but if his latest film is anything to go by, it’s even more difficult imagining anyone attempting to come close.

Killers of the Flower Moon opens nationally from the 19th of October, 2023. 


Arnel Duracak

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