'Killers of the Flower Moon' documents the tragic legacy of the Osage
  • Release Date: 27/10/2023
  • Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Cara Jade Myers, Jesse Plemons
  • Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is my favourite director of all time, and every release of his comes with a promise of being different and better than his previous work. I have watched his films more times than those from my own country. His last directorial effort, ‘The Irishman,’ was one of his longest yet felt breezier than some of his shorter films. The fact that the film was tense, gripping, gritty, and darkly funny not only made it the best film of the year for me but also underlined the fact that Scorsese was not growing weary with age; in fact, he was getting better, reinventing a genre he had mastered over the years and had helped popularize.

In ‘The Irishman’, he was reinventing his career-defining genre with two of the greatest actors who ever lived, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, along with Scorsese’s regular and a tower of immense strength and support, Joe Pesci. After the film was over, I asked myself how Scorsese could ever top this effort in terms of size, reach, character depth, and sheer richness. This question was answered when I heard about ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and delved into the fascinating story it aimed to tell. I told myself that this might just be the film that could surpass Scorsese’s previous work. However, it would have to be outstanding to achieve this nearly impossible feat.

Hence, the burden of expectation on ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ was monumental from the start. To deliver a film that doesn’t wilt under the weight of such high expectations, despite being 3 hours and 26 minutes long and lacking a fast-paced thriller-like story, is a testament to Scorsese’s greatness and his superhuman directorial abilities.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ chronicles a dark chapter in American history, one steeped in the blood of innocent Osage Indians, marked by unbridled greed, cunning, and sheer barbarism on the part of individuals who not only considered themselves superior to the Osage but believed that plundering the Osage’s newfound wealth was not only just but also a service to a people they deemed incapable of managing their riches. They executed these schemes with clinical precision and almost surgical coldness.

The Osage Indians, forced to live on land far removed from resources that could sustain a civilization, stumbled upon a unique resource, one that had the potential to fuel an entire world. Suddenly, the Osage became the wealthiest and most privileged people in the world. But how could the Americans accept this? They devised a diabolical plan. By marrying Osage women and men and then systematically eliminating them in unique ways, they seized their fortunes, exploiting the relationships established through matrimony as justification. This continued for years, with even law enforcement colluding with the perpetrators until the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover stepped in, directed by the President, who was inundated with pleas from wealthy Osages living in Washington and other less remote locations.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ delves deeply into this period, using its protagonists, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro), as conduits to portray the inner workings of an evil American determined to strip the Osage of their wealth and eliminate them in the most convenient manner. The film also delves deeply into the emotional, psychological, and moral decay that occurred as these men sacrificed every ounce of their humanity and compassion for their insatiable greed, pursuing ownership of what was never rightfully theirs.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is not a thriller; in fact, it is far from it. It is, in many ways, a character study of at least three distinct characters who find themselves at a critical juncture in their lives, sharing company with one another and learning about life, trust, betrayal, and the depths to which a person is capable of sinking when they willingly abandon their humanity and succumb to their most basic and barbaric instincts.

There is a discussion between Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro at the beginning of the film, where De Niro welcomes DiCaprio to the Osage country and speaks highly of the Osage people. While he praises them, one can sense an underlying contempt and a desire to strip them of all they have, even though De Niro maintains a gentle smile and speaks positively about them. The way this conversation unfolds underscores the complex relationship that the Americans shared with the Osage. The contempt and desire to rob them of whatever they had is communicated through expressions, mannerisms, and subtle wordplay in this scene. I found this scene masterful, and while some may argue that I interpreted it through a preconceived notion of the conflict, I believe that it was the scene’s execution and the performances that added to its dark atmosphere, even though nothing particularly sinister was happening at that moment.

There are at least two more scenes involving Lily Gladstone that emphasize the Osage experience and the frustrations that came with it. One of these scenes introduces her character, where she explains an expense to what appears to be her guardian. She articulates her words with a sense of contempt at having to justify her spending of her own fortune, all while maintaining a respectful demeanour toward someone who has no reason to meddle in her affairs.

In a later scene, we see Gladstone in the company of her on-screen sisters as they contemplate and discuss her potential marriage to the character portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Here, too, we can sense a feeling of undesirable surrender to the influx of Americans, whom the Osage couldn’t keep at bay and are now compelled to share their lives and beds with. While she highlights Leonardo’s qualities, both she and others have enough reservations about the man. In the end, she decides to proceed with the marriage, even though she is never entirely convinced of the match and never sure if she could trust him or not.

Robert De Niro’s William ‘King’ Hale is undeniably sinister, yet at the same time, he’s utterly fascinating. The ease with which he carries out unthinkable and horrifying acts against those he calls his friends and even refers to as “beautiful” is a captivating spectacle in itself. As the film unfolds, we witness the character’s descent into even greater malevolence. He not only plots to rob every Osage of their fortune but also schemes to eliminate anyone displaying even a hint of resistance. All the while, he maintains the facade of being their closest confidant and guardian.

His numerous conversations with Leonardo DiCaprio and other characters provide a comprehensive view and understanding of the man’s plan and his descent into bigger evils. De Niro masterfully portrays the villainy of the character while maintaining an unbelievably neutral demeanour throughout the film. Some of the deeds De Niro’s character perpetrates are revealed in flashbacks after their repercussions have been addressed. This narrative technique adds to the tension and drama of the story elevating key character moments. However, it’s the performance itself that truly brings the character to life, as without it, the role would have been toothless.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is in a state of disarray from the beginning to the end of the film. The only time he appears comfortable and sane is when he’s courting Lily Gladstone. However, once he gets married and circumstances worsen for the Osage, his mental state deteriorates as he is an accessory to all that is happening around his family and yet has to pretend to be an honest husband and father. He also has to maintain the facade of being in control in front of Gladstone, which further contributes to the erosion of his mental health. DiCaprio masterfully portrays this descent into madness and claustrophobia.

Earnest’s character is not entirely villainous. He does love Lily Gladstone, but the problem is, he loves money, gambling, and a comfortable life where he faces little to no questioning or accountability even more than he loves Lily. He is also unable to challenge his uncle in any way and believes that since his uncle brought him to the country and set him up, everything he says is in his best interest.

The highlight of Leonardo’s performance is his gradual descent into a hellish existence from which there is no escape. Even after testifying against his own people, he finds no peace for what he has done to the woman he professed his love to. This may be one of the best DiCaprio performances in recent memory, given the stark departure from who he really is.

Lily Gladstone embodies pride, beauty, poise, and a deep understanding of her predicament in the film. She is aware from the beginning that Earnest is after her money, yet she inexplicably surrenders to him. As the story unfolds, we witness her torment as her family meets a suspicious and gradual demise. She also must contend with the contempt of her mother, who disapproves of her marrying an American. To add to her challenges, her own medical condition and her inability to trust her own husband take a toll on her, gradually eroding the confidence and strength that defined her character.

Gladstone adeptly portrays and captures the different facets of her character in an easily comprehensible manner, all while acknowledging the complexities inherent in the various elements that make up her character. Her chemistry with DiCaprio is outstanding and effectively conveys the predicament and the situations that the two characters share.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ has a substantial runtime of nearly 3 hours and 26 minutes, which might be daunting for some viewers. The film could indeed have been shorter, and Scorsese could have exercised a bit more restraint in certain aspects of character development. However, if you were to ask me to be the editor and trim any part of the film, I would find it challenging. This is because even the segments that might seem to overstay their welcome are executed with such power and contribute to the story and drama so seamlessly that it becomes difficult to question the decision to allocate a specific amount of time to them. This, in itself, highlights the brilliance of Scorsese’s direction. Perhaps it’s time for us to reacquaint ourselves with longer, 4-hour films, even though we have grown accustomed to and spoiled by the convenience of instant gratification and shorter runtimes.

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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is more of an experience than just a film. It may not be suitable for everyone, but if you have an interest in a compelling story that delves deep into the hearts and minds of people who were part of one of the most significant betrayals between generations of people, you won’t find a better movie. For me, it easily stands as the best Hollywood film of the year so far, and it seems likely to maintain that status. This is the kind of Scorsese epic that I’ll watch at least two or three times a year, every year, once it becomes available on OTT platforms.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

The views expressed in this article are that of the reviewer and do not reflect EastMojo’s position.

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