Back in 2010 NBA superstar Lebron James held a live broadcast interview proclaiming his intent on choosing the next basketball team to play for. Dubbed “The Decision”, Lebron’s choice to leave his hometown team the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat forever altered the course of modern day basketball and the foundation of a team. Lebron’s decision sparked a couple of new terms, one being ‘Super team’ in which 2 or more All-Star athletes would come together for the sole purpose of winning a championship. Another term that was spun from this live broadcast was the ‘Big Three’ – Lebron joining Miami Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade and fellow free agent Chris Bosh.
You’re probably thinking, what does basketball have to do with Killers of the Flower Moon, the new Martin Scorsese crime epic? In their own right, the pairing of writer-director-visionary Martin Scorsese, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are the cinema equivalent of the ‘Super team’. Whenever 2 of the 3 or in this case all 3 are together, all they do is win. And Killers of the Flower Moon is another title to hang in the rafters for the trio. To make another basketball analogy, the trio also can epitomize the 1990’s Chicago Bulls.
Three of the greatest to ever do it in their respective roles and they deliver a thought-provoking, hypnotizing and soul shattering masterpiece.
Alright, that’s enough basketball talk and jargon, it’s not why we’re here. Whenever a Scorsese directed film is announced and he’s paired with his frequent collaborators (De Niro – 10 films, DiCaprio – 6 films), the subject matter is almost guaranteed to leave an emotional wreckage soon after the credits roll. That’s where Scorsese is at his sharpest as a storyteller – telling stories of morally corruptible people and following them through their apprehensible and vile acts based on their inhumane motivations. People that are out for their own self-interest no matter the destruction of human life around them. And yet Scorsese crafts these stories to feel utterly engrossing and truly devastating to witness.
Based on the novel of the same name by David Grann, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth swing for the fences with another sweeping crime drama full of unsympathetic characters marginalizing a group of people for their own selfish gain. Set after the end of World War 1, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns home to Indigenous People owned Osage Nation, Oklahoma to work for his uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro). Osage Nation sits on a wealthy piece of land where oil has made these native American’s wealthy beyond their measure. White people have flocked to this land to manage the Osage wealth as a means to forcefully exploit what they see as their birthright and inheritance.
What follows is murder, manipulation, greed, crime and other acts of senseless inhumanity against the natives of immeasurable Osage wealth who have foreseen the next generation assimilating into white culture. For 206 minutes (Scorsese’s comfort zone), a handful of animals are used to describe white people and their motivations.
Animals like buzzards, wolves, and coyotes perfectly pinpoint the actions of white people in this story. Wolves in sheep’s clothing who will smile to your face but once your guard is down they stab and shoot you in the back, while others will feed off the scraps. It’s an epidemic that finds relevancy to today’s modern world. “Can you spot the wolves in this picture?” Ernest reads from a book his uncle gives him right before he goes out to commit one of the many atrocities against the natives. To be honest, there aren’t enough words to describe how evil the white people are in a story of this magnitude.
The story settles in when Ernest starts earning a living as a cab driver. One day he picks up Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage native who comes from a wealthy family for a fare. Over the course of time as Ernest continuously gives Mollie rides around town, the two strike up a natural romantic relationship – setting up the dominos to fall, with a string of unknown misfortunate events for Mollie and her family. One by one, the family led by matriarch Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) experience loss on a grand scale, turning the family inside out.
The Osage have what the white characters desire above anything else – wealth and by extension power. Whoever has the wealth holds the power in the country and the white people are a plague to those who predate them on this land. Throughout the 206 minute runtime, Scorsese places these horrific acts of violence where we least expect them, using the silence of the moment to make the impact greater. Whats left to the imagination by Scorsese is the manipulation and corruption from William Hale. Hale stays in the shadows while others like Ernest to carry out the despicable deeds.
At the same time that forced migration, corruption, and greed are slowly taking over Osage country, Flower Moon celebrates the indigenous culture that is still alive today. Scorsese employs an authenticity at every level of the film from the photography, to the language, the spirit, the music, tradition and customs. That alone makes for a heavy film to endure for 3 and a half hours but with the added stark violence and bloodshed, Flower Moon becomes unbearable to believe that this is part of our history as a country.
With an ensemble cast that stands out from its two male leads and several stand out supporting additions, Lily Gladstone as Mollie is the beating heart and soul of Flower Moon. What happens to Mollie, and her family is a true tragedy of exploitation and Gladstone conveys the most vulnerability with her expressions and body language. Gladstone’s performance is one of the best of the year, that will stay with you weeks after seeing it, haunting you with her looks of discomfort, pain and endurance of the brutality her character has experienced.
Opposite Gladstone is DiCaprio at his absolute best. The Oscar winner who should have won for his performance as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street falls right on the line of doing whats easy and whats good. Out of all the evilness that has fallen on the Osage, most of it being carried out by Ernest, DiCaprio gives his character range by adding in a conscious, though it might be a guilty one. Together, chemistry is easy to come by with Gladstone and DiCaprio – their love story and intimacy is admirable even with all of the mayhem. DiCaprio’s performance had me fooled thinking that Ernest would pivot one way, but the character does another.
Killers of the Flower Moon will not be for the faint hearted or those with small bladders. Luckily, once the film hits streaming, the pause button will be your best friend. Remember The Irishman? A sweeping Scorsese crime drama has come to be an acquired taste – one that should not be taken lightly but one that fully encapsulates the atmosphere of the characters that make up the story. Once again Scorsese challenges you to think beyond the box with dense themes of morality from immoral people. Very few filmmakers can tackle these themes and idea’s making Scorsese one of the last of a dying breed. Once again Scorsese puts the art of filmmaking at the highest priority, perfecting every aspect, every decision and message he conveys through another phenomenal effort to shock the system with truly sobering events.
Screenplay By: Eric Roth & Martin Scorsese
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Music By: Robbie Robertson
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser
Edited By: Thelma Schoonmaker
Release Date: October 20, 2023
Running Time: 3 Hours 26 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Based On: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann