Take your time and settle into the world of Osage. Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest film from Martin Scorsese, melds together his decades long relation with Robert De Niro (50 years) and Leonardo DiCaprio (20 years). Add the stunning counterpoint performance from Lily Gladstone caught between the motivations of the men and you’ve got a powerhouse cinematic experience. All three main actors are guaranteed plaudits in end-of-year assessments.
The setting is 1920s Oklahoma. The Osage Nation vibrant in North America since 700 BCE had been reduced to living on a reservation in Northern Oklahoma. Oil allotments on the property made some families extremely wealthy. As a result most of the townspeople become murderous trying to eradicate the Indians making bank.
Some articles on this film will talk about the running time but bear in mind such verbiage is not criticism so much as writers who are clock watchers.
This main narrative was covered as a vignette in the James Stewart starrer The FBI Story, a 1959 rah-rah patriotism movie that chronicled the early history of the bureau. In that film Stewart goes undercover to investigate a series of murders on the Osage reservation.
Scorsese in recent interviews talks about how the story shifted from the point of view of the federal agents solving the crime to the criminals themselves, even as the pre-production was halted by the pandemic.
A few of the menfolk marry into the wealth but the main thrust of the crimes are orchestrated by local businessman William Hale (De Niro) and his sons and nephews including Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio).
There’s a wealth of information in this film. At one point the Tulsa riots, another Oklahoman tragedy, are referenced and there’s beautiful attention to period detail. Some scenes appear to have every Stutz Bearcat that still exists parked as props along the streets.
Background music includes “The Indian War Whoop” a song from the 1920s by Floyd Ming And His Pep Steppers. Another song “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded in 1928 by Texas bluesman Henry Thomas, has the same lead riff as “Going Up the Country” as recorded by Canned Heat in the ‘60s.
There’s no shortage of gore but violent sequences are quick as they are deadly. A lot of people being shot from behind. At one point a murder victim’s head is raised and the back of their skull is blown out a la JFK. (Besides the eyeball popping scene in Casino it’s hands down the single most grotesque image from any Scorsese film.)
The real spine of the film is how Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart knows she’s being manipulated yet marries DiCaprio because he’s a himbo. Mollie wants a handsome coyote who’s obviously not as smart as he thinks. At different parts of the film you wonder which spouse is manipulating who.
Multiple notable character actors pop up and form an effective ensemble of accessories to the fact. Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow are attorneys that figure in the last act courtroom drama. Jesse Plemons heads the bureau task force. There’s a radio station sequence that has Scorsese in a cameo giving Orson Welles a salute.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in the theaters October 19.