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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Killers of Flower Moon’ is a defining entry in the Scorsese catalog

The Osage Nation acts as the foundation for a film delving into unchartered territories for cinema, crime and Native culture.


At one point in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 breakout feature “Taxi Driver,” a cab driver named Wizard utters the words “you get a job, you become the job.” It’s not unusual for a Scorcese film to feature a lead character thrusting themselves into a new working role; yet, what’s different in his most recent film is the way said character inhabits the life of a working man while placing ruthlessness and love toe-to-toe.

In “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023), we are pulled back into the dark, twisted underbelly of the American workforce with a story that links gracefully with the previous works of the director. Featuring another examination of crime and raucous character confrontations, the film is nothing short of a monumental staple in the already stacked career of one of the true great American directors.

In the early credits, the Osage Nation are identified as some of the world’s “most beautiful people” — with plains rich in oil that bear an ever-glowing likeness to a land of milk and honey. In the 1920s, individuals such as William Hale (Robert De Niro) donated money to the Osage Nation to win the Osage people’s trust while simultaneously fixing schemes to steal oil profits from the natives. Hale used people like his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) to inculcate a sense of community with the locals by having him wed Osage local Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). The insertion of Ernest into the Osage day-to-day affairs is where the narrative picks up steam.

The men who had been funneling money back to William alongside Ernest begin a killing spree of the Osage people, including members of Mollie’s family, enabling William to take their assets. This long chain of killings mark the primary points of concern and tension in Eric Roth and Scorsese’s script. The film plunges down a path of eeriness that doesn’t quite line up with previous films from the director. “Killers of the Flower Moon” isn’t as dark as it is abstract and ambiguous. In films such as “Goodfellas” (1990), Scorsese portrays deaths with a series of quick cuts — the sound of a gun firing, the victim wincing, a smattering of gore and grit. In “Killers of the Flower Moon”, many key events are told through extended recollections and monologues, giving a far more unnerving, offbeat view into the world in which the Osage murders occurred.

In this Scorsese project, the great composer and artist Robbie Robertson deserves praise. Robertson’s score for the film consists of sounds from single bass plucks, tribal percussive beats and quasi-country guitar riffs which recall his work with The Band. The music harmonizes perfectly with Scorcese’s direction.

The cast’s entrancing performances continue to define the different chapters of the lead actors’ careers. DiCaprio plays Ernest with hints of innocence even as he commits heinous acts. Ernest wants to support his wife, but also feels compelled to obey his uncle. With his portrayal of William Hale, De Niro pulls away from the aging mobster persona seen in “The Irishman” (2019). De Niro’s character is much more intimidating in this film, sparking fear and initiating the chain of violence rather than reacting to others’ evil behavior. And Gladstone’s performance as Mollie Burkhart (née Kyle) is nothing short of electrifying. She commands the screen as she trembles into deep pits of regret through her relationship with Ernest. Mollie’s descent into sickness and depression is exceptionally vivid.

Key to the film is Mollie’s voiceover. Her voice comes off as ethereal and sensorially meaningful, like a wronged angel looking down on a world of destruction. And when Mollie’s health deteriorates, even though her onscreen character falls silent for portions of the film, her voice still shines through voiceover and is something truly affecting.

In the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a “flower moon” refers to the full moon during a time where blooming flowers douse the Great Plains with their vibrancy following a frigid and dark winter. The irony lies in how the film is a reversal of this naturally revered process. Here, the beauty of the hills become shrouded in the darkness of crime and thus the film provides an unadulterated look into the “white man’s burden.” Mr. Scorsese adapts David Grann’s 2017 novel with the grandiosity it so desperately deserves. The film is emotionally grappling, gorgeously shot and classically “Scorsese” even as its setting shifts to a region of America which the director had not yet explored until this point.

Summary Martin Scorsese’s brand new inspired masterpiece, culture manifestation and sprawling epic is a dark, dreary nosedive into a world of crime. If history is told by the winners, it’s no surprise that you may have never heard of a tale such as this.
4.5 Stars