We are now deep into the elder statesman stage of Martin Scorsese’s career. Every film comes with a certain weight of expectation, even as it tries to reach the escape velocity from his previous work. The Killers of the Flower Moon, like his Netflix-backed The Irishman, is a lengthy retelling of American history, exhumed and played in the key of true crime.
The discovery of oil on reservation land saw the Osage people going from the poverty-stricken surviving remnant of decades of genocide to the richest per capita state of the United States, complete with mansions and chauffeur-driven cars. The good fortune is related via newsreels played condescendingly for laughs, but the white community has manipulated the law, making many of the holders of the “head rights” – as their titles are known – incompetent and unable to access their money without the signature of a white guardian.
White men marry into the Osage families and assume these responsibilities even as their new wives begin to sicken and die at an alarming rate. Price gouging is also rife as many see their opportunity to get rich. One of these fortune seekers is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). Demobbed, Burkhart goes to work as a driver for his cattle barron uncle, William “King” Hale (played with twinkling malevolence by Robert De Niro), who immediately nudges him towards marrying Mollie (Lily Gladstone), one of several sisters set to inherit a substantial fortune on the death of her ailing mother. But it soon becomes evident that the Osage have a high mortality rate and that their deaths are frequently suspicious – if not obviously murder.
Scorsese begins the film as an ‘End of the West’ western, somewhere between Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and George Stevens’ Giant. White America is a criminal enterprise and Hale’s activities are just a more brutal version of that: a criminal enterprise on top of a criminal enterprise. In fact, the cultural racism is so deep and the concept of manifest destiny so toxic, Hale is perfectly capable of believing himself a good friend to the Osage while at the same time ruthlessly exploiting and engineering their deaths. But Scorsese is a New York boy at heart and can’t quite forsake his frenetic, pulsing momentum, blues-inflected score and townhouses. He wants cocaine and this is moonshine country.
Scorsese and his co-writer Eric Roth have shifted the emphasis of the story away from the arrival of a nascent FBI – represented by Jesse Plemons’ stolid Texas ranger – and towards Burkhart and Hale. This is the kind of toxic male relationship that fascinates Scorsese, almost in spite of himself. As a result the Osage people – despite well-meaning attempts to show their lifestyles and rituals and use their language – become little more than passive chumps or corpses.
This is most disturbing in the character of Molly, who is given as much depth as possible by Gladstone, but who can’t escape a mostly bedridden role. This is perhaps inevitable considering her predicament, but DiCaprio plays Burkhart as a sly, partially charismatic layabout with a jutting jaw (something like Monty Python’s Mr Gumby), who boasts that he loves money and isn’t “thick” (which means, he kind of is).
There is supposed to be a love affair here that makes Molly blind and Burkhart in some way relatable. It’s a credit to DiCaprio’s commitment that he somehow manages to convey the queasy mix of a man who loves his wife but is perfectly prepared to do away with her to secure her money and his fortune. His cunning stupidity is pure Coen brothers territory and the exchanges between him and De Niro are the highlights of the film – darkly, viciously comic – but the risk is that the victims are locked in the attic and forgotten.
There is so much to love and enjoy here. Scorsese pulls off several coups, not least an inventive coda recounting the epilogue as a cigarette-sponsored radio drama. This is a timely film with contemporary accounts in Canada of deaths and disappearance of First Nations peoples and the American Right banning college courses teaching what they characterise as “Critical Race Theory” but is just, in fact, facts. It’s a pity that on this occasion Scorsese makes an admirable and fine film, but alas not a great one.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty