Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of Apple TV
This extraordinary new film from Martin Scorsese is a monumental study of the atrocities inflicted on the Osage Nation of Oklahoma throughout the 1920s. It shines a spotlight on a people consigned to the fringes of history who realised their land was built on vast reserves of oil, briefly making them the wealthiest people per capita on the planet and who were slaughtered for their wealth.
Scorsese’s film is based on fact and is adapted by him and Eric Roth from David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name. Its opening depicts the discovery of the oil, a kind of miracle. A rumbling in the earth precedes frenzied dancing beneath black rain, captured in striking slow-motion.
From here, we go into a history of the Osage people rendered in the style of a black-and-white newsreel before colour begins to seep into the fringes of the picture. This remarkable opening makes it clear that at 80 years-old, Scorsese has lost none of the fleet-footed playfulness which has defined his previous pictures, but he combines it in Killers of the Flower Moon with a confrontational anguish which pushes the film into the realm of greatness. This is a landmark film, as horrifying as it is vital. Essential cinema.
Leonardo Di Caprio plays Ernest Bruckhart, who has returned from the First World War to stay with his uncle William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro), who also houses Ernest’s brother Byron (Scott Shepherd). Hale poses as a friend of the Osage – and even speaks the language – but secretly plans to murder them so that he can claim their headrights, which entitle the owner to a quarterly share of the Osage Mineral Estate.
As part of Hale’s scheme, Ernest is encouraged to court Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) whose family own a large share of the headrights. Hale has engineered a sequence of deaths which will leave Ernest as the sole inheritor of the Kyle fortune upon Mollie’s death.
That this description still manages to do the nuances and subtleties of the plot a disservice speaks to the awful complexity of the real-life crimes Scorsese excavates here. This is a very long film, but it exerts a vice like intensity over its audience and unfurls via a series of increasingly horrific acts of violence, treated with unsettlingly straightforward bluntness.
Indeed, audiences expecting the stylised thrills of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street will be sorely disappointed by Killers of the Flower Moon, a picture in which Scorsese is operating on the quieter and more contemplative levels of Silence or The Irishman. The violence here is accompanied not by wisecracks or needle-drops, but by the oppressive silence of injustice.
Not that Killers isn’t astonishingly engaging for almost the entirety its 206-minute runtime, but that it seems Scorsese himself is using it to reflect on the ways he has shown violence in his films, and perhaps the ways they have wound up inadvertently glamorising violence and criminal lifestyles.
Luckily for Scorsese, he has the perfect character to critique these ideas in Ernest, who even by the standards set by the director’s previous works occupies a particularly low rung on the ladder of human decency.
Ernest is a white man, a drunkard and sleaze who by his own admission loves cold, hard cash and has no scruples about how it’s obtained. He acts almost as an inverse of The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, who knew what he was doing and made no apologies for gaming a system. Here, the system is playing Ernest: while he’s making a fortune, he’s too much of a neanderthal to realise just how ensnared in evil he really is. He’s neither a hero nor a villain. Instead, he is perfectly and stupidly ignorant. It makes him revolting.
At the apex of its intensity Killers ultimately captures a kind of fever-pitch hysteria which will feel bracingly unfamiliar to its many of its white audience members (when was the last time this critic was afraid to leave the house?), and it hurtles along with relentless ferocity. Yet what causes the film to transcend its genre trappings is its vivid depiction of Osage culture and the dignity it affords each of Nation’s people.
Scorsese holds the Osage at a respectful degree of narrative and aesthetic distance, aware that he is fundamentally an outsider to these people. And while Molly gradually comes to signify genuine good tarnished by white greed Scorsese never attempts to depict her psychological interior, aware that to do so would reduce her to yet another commodity. Gladstone’s performance is a miracle in itself: her reservedness, her poise. Her very presence is a force of nature, a reckoning in itself.
Perhaps the film falters in focusing so heavily on Ernest and the conspiracy to obtain the headrights. Some critics may argue that Scorsese is repacking Osage trauma for mass-consumption by mainstream cinemagoers.
But Di Caprio plays Ernest with such a simpering cowardice, and De Niro plays William with such bull-headed greediness that it’s never unclear who the villains are here: they ultimately come to embody the racist capitalism the film so harrowingly condemns. The film’s politics are never up for debate.
There is a roughness to the film, a kind of holed-ness at its centre. Its most radical aspect is that it feels intentionally unfinished to suggest that so long as the Osage are denied justice, the story the film tells is still ongoing.
And with a final, gloriously self-aware flourish Scorsese turns the microscope on both the film and himself, deftly critiquing the ways that the suffering of real people is too often softened by the comfortable distance time – and the cinema screen – can afford us.
He is guilty. And so am I. And so are you.
Killers of the Flower Moon – official trailer
Killers of the Flower Moon is in UK cinemas now, for more information and UK screenings visit: www.killersoftheflowermoonmovie.co.uk
For screenings from Birmingham’s independent cinemas visit:
The Electric at www.electricbirmingham.com/whats-on
Midlands Arts Centre at www.macbirmingham.co.uk/event/killers-of-the-flower-moon
The Mockingbird Cinema at www.mockingbirdcinema.com/production/killers-of-the-flower-moon