Directed by Martin Scorsese and co-written with Eric Roth, the epic on the treatment of the Osage people is a spectacle starring long-time collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio that firmly belongs on streaming and is likely to bring the spotlight onto the indigenous communities during the awards seasons for the first time since Marlon Brando.
Adapted from the non-fiction book ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann, Martin Scorsese’s tale is about Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who returns home from the war to find that the ranches once owned by the Osage people are now the finding places of oil.
Killers of the Flower Moon was screened as part of the official selection of the BFI London Film Festival 2023.
Having been established in their community, Ernest’s uncle William Hale, who goes by King (Robert De Niro), orchestrates a manipulation over the years to see the wealth transfer from the Osage to the colonisers.
As the Osage community slowly die off, under supposedly accidental means, the FBI begin investigating to identify the racism and the illegal underbelly workings of the town.
In its first act, Killers of the Flower Moon establishes that the Osage’s wisdom exists best in its unspoken moments. Mollie’s witnessing the equally silent brutality of her people is its strength, even when constantly reiterated across its nearly three-and-a-half hour runtime.
Most of the discourse for Killers of the Flower Moon lies in its runtime. As an epic sprawling over three hours, its length is ultimately its undoing, as the film may fuel a conversation around colonisation. Instead, critics, journalists and general audiences constantly reiterate its runtime as its primary talking point.
Distributed by Apple TV+, Killers of the Flower Moon best belongs on streaming. Whilst it has proven successful in cinemas, and though I have no doubt it’ll continue to encourage audiences to seek it out theatrically, with its enormous runtime, its delivery suggests that perhaps the ability to pause the film may work in its favour.
This aside, the performances by De Niro, DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone are awe-inspiring, with Gladstone now likely to win at the next Academy Awards. The silences from Gladstone as DiCaprio’s schmuck digs his own verbal grave is eerily reflecting the racism of contemporary America.
In truth, her performance eclipses the two cinema veterans. Though Martin Scorsese opted to tell the story through Ernest’s perspective, there would have been a strength in Mollie’s hopelessness as the story’s protagonist. However, by shifting it entirely to the colonisers, I appreciate that it reflects the whites constructing their history, erasing those from indigenous communities.
As Christopher Cote, the film’s dialect Osage coach, best put it when in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter: “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that.
“Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart, and they give him this conscience and depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s not love, that’s just beyond abuse.”
It’s in the film’s attempt to humanise Ernest as loving Mollie that didn’t work. Their love never felt genuine. To spend three hours sitting witness to a relationship that has minimal chemistry, its betrayal, and its fight for justice creates boredom as the unfortunate truth of its resolution slowly moves closer.
In its second and third acts, with the introduction of Jesse Plemons as an investigating FBI agent, it grows needlessly larger than its dissection of communal racism, with Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow filling out the seats of the courtroom drama as if two films sandwiched into an epic.
Despite this, Killers of the Flower Moon is made with care and attention. This is evidenced immediately in the opening sequence, highlighting Scorsese’s cinephile background: the erupting oil and its cinematography of the primal desire of man visually replicant the apes discovering and using the bones in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Consequently, the visual spectacle of Killers of the Flower Moon is a majestic celebration of its wide shots and the attention to its misé-en-scene, inviting audiences to explore the frame and dissect its history of a brutal truth.
There is no doubt that Killers of the Flower Moon is the beginning of the recontextualization of the indigenous communities who had been colonised and horrifically treated. Gladstone’s award campaign is a possible signifier of a changing tide, becoming a monumental difference from the Oscars’ poor treatment towards Sacheen Littlefeather, who accepted the award on behalf of Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather.
As Cote continues: “I think in the end, the question that you can be left with is: How long will you be complacent with racism? How long will you go along with something and not say something, not speak up, how long will you be complacent?
“I think that’s because this film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage.
“For those that have been disenfranchised, they can relate, but for other countries that have their acts and their history of oppression, this is an opportunity for them to ask themselves this question of morality, and that’s how I feel about this film.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is available to watch exclusively in cinemas before shortly arriving on Apple TV.
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