Film review: Killers of the Flower Moon - Scorsese's brilliant epic explores how the west was stolen

Martin Scorsese’s first western reveals the rapacious greed underpinning the murder of members of the Osage tribe in 1920s Oklahoma. Starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Killers of the Flower Moon is the work of a virtuosic filmmaker who, at 80, is still pushing cinema’s capabilities

Killers of the Flower Moon (15)


It’s been 50 years since Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s breakthrough film Mean Streets, 21 since Scorsese’s first film with Leonardo DiCaprio (Gangs of New York), and 30 since DiCaprio’s own cinematic breakthrough, opposite De Niro, in This Boy’s Life. Flowers of the Killer Moon, though, marks the first time all three have worked together on the same feature and their shared history is palpable. Not only does it tie together many of the thematic concerns Scorsese has explored with each actor — violence, loyalty, betrayal, avarice — it also riffs in subtle and intriguing ways on the evolving relationship between De Niro and DiCaprio as the premiere actors of their respective generations.

Set in the 1920s and based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction best-seller of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon is also Scorsese’s first western, though not in the traditional sense. Taking place 30 years after the frontier officially closed, it’s set at a time when the fortune-seeking energy inherent in white America’s westward expansion had nowhere left to go, a time when the explicit genocidal impulses of the wild west had become more insidious as a result. But where Grann’s book was essentially a true-crime procedural about a spate of murders perpetrated against members of the Osage Nation, whose reservation in Oklahoma turned out to have vast oil supplies beneath its barren soil, Scorsese is more interested in the brazen, murderous conspiracy to defraud the already displaced Osage people of the economic windfall that made them “the richest people per capita on earth.”

Hide Ad

In an ominous prologue, he stages the initial discovery of black gold by having oil gushing from the ground and raining down on members of an Osage tribe as they participate in a funeral ritual. Wealth and death intricately linked, the film cuts to the prospector town of Fairfax, Oklahoma several years on, with Scorsese using the contemporaneous language of silent cinema to draw attention to the strangeness of a place where the Osage ride chauffeur-driven cars, wear expensive jewellery and purchase traditional garments from white manufacturers desperate to capitalise on the boom in any way they can.

Already, then, Scorsese is deconstructing the way movies traditionally represent Native American culture and he goes further by zeroing in on Lily Gladstone’s Mollie, a young Osage Nation woman whose family members are among those dying in mysterious, sometimes brutal circumstances. Unmarried, she falls for her driver, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a somewhat feckless First World War veteran, newly arrived in Oklahoma from Europe to work for his uncle, a local rancher called William Hale (De Niro) who likes to be known as “King”. Hale has spent years establishing connections with the Osage, learning their language, their customs and earning their trust as a self-styled emissary for their cause, all the while plotting against them to gain control of their fortunes. In Ernest he’s found the perfect patsy, someone biddable enough to marry into wealth and do what’s necessary to secure the inheritable mineral rights of Mollie’s family for his own ends.

That we’re party to these machinations as Ernest is making a play for Mollie makes Gladstone’s role trickier, more so because Ernest isn’t exactly a catch (with a mouthful of decaying teeth DiCaprio dials down his movie-star looks). But love and marriage are complicated and Mollie is savvy enough to understand that while there’s an economic component to Ernest’s interest in her, she also knows too marriage to Ernest is a way for her to wrest control of her finances away from the demeaning government-imposed guardians who look after their wealth. Gladstone certainly infuses Mollie with enough quiet strength and intelligence to ensure her guilelessness confuses and destabilises Ernest, who loves her in his own way, but is also too lacking in moral courage to reject Hale’s malevolent plan to take control of Mollie’s fortune, something that nudges the film into Goodfellas territory as De Niro’s character shuts down external threats to his longterm plan with the ruthlessness of Jimmy Conway.

There’s a hint of Trumpian demagoguery in De Niro’s performance too – the faux man-of-the-people posturing, the narcissism, the weird punitive measures he takes against the disloyal. DiCaprio, meanwhile, delivers a rigorously complex turn, contorting his body and face more and more as the spineless Ernest’s soul-rotting fidelity to Hale starts having a deleterious effect on Mollie. At times he consciously resembles De Niro and their characters’ increasingly twisted relationship puts a creepy spin on the veteran/upstart dynamic of their early collaborations.

Cinema history also looms large, with Scorsese adding thematic texture via newsreel footage of the Tulsa race riots and, in a later scene, including the extraordinary sight of a Native American character watching an early western, dispassionately taking in the way his peoples’ own demise is already being transformed into simplistic entertainment. Perspective matters, in other words, and Scorsese structures the film accordingly, exposing the venality at the heart of the story without the distraction of a “white saviour” narrative. In this way it plays like Scorsese’s answer to The Searchers, but where John Ford’s opus famously ended with the comforting myth that all the brutality, horror and hate John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards represented no longer had a place in America, Killers of the Flower Moon ends with a remarkable epilogue that acknowledges how easily these traits mutate and flourish in other guises. It’s an incredible feat of virtuosic filmmaking from an artist who, at 80, is still pushing cinema’s capabilities.

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas from 20 October