Killers of the Flower Moon

At the end of WWI, army cook Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) traveled to Osage Indian country in Oklahoma to secure a job with his wealthy uncle, cattleman William Hale (Robert De Niro).  Ernest, who married Native Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone, "Certain Women"), would find himself seduced into Hale’s increasingly blatant hits on the wealthy Indians who owned the headrights to the oil discovered on their reservation at the turn of the century.  Hale’s plot to have his nephew inherit all the headrights of the extended Kyle family made the duo “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Laura's Review: B+

David Grann’s meticulously researched and absorbing 2017 nonfiction book was subtitled ‘The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.,” but over the course of 3 ½ hours, cowriter (with Eric Roth, "Dune")/director Martin Scorsese mostly focuses on the murders with Jesse Plemons’ F.B.I. agent Tom White’s arrival in the film’s third act the source of some confusion for Oklahomans unfamiliar with J. Edgar Hoover and clarification for the audience, who only then will witness some of the murders in flashback.  And it is in witnessing those murders – abrupt, violent and brutal – and in a paddling scene that oddly feels like a man being made in the mafia, that we most recognize Scorsese’s auteurship here, his lengthy period film often feeling more like binging a prestige HBO limited series.

While Scorsese begins by laying some background – oil gushing from the ground as Osage dance around it, black and white photos of Osage in western dress accompanied by title cards explaining they were the wealthiest people per capita with more Pierce Arrows than anyone in their county – he skips over facts like how headrights were allocated and why some Osage, like Mollie, required legal guardianship to budget their own money, another ploy of the white man (the Osage situation is compared more than once to the Tulsa massacre, which occurred a few years after the Osage murders began).

We meet Ernest as he first sits with his uncle in the dark expanse of his living room, a decanter of whiskey on a side table.  What both we and his nephew will learn is that William Hale is something of a mob boss, a serial killer in sheep’s clothing who presents a benevolent face to the very people he exploits, outwardly expressing friendship and community largesse.  Ernest, whose brother Byron (Scott Shepherd, "Bridge of Spies") is already in Hale’s court, begins working as a driver, Mollie becoming a regular customer.  He begins a reciprocal flirtation, while holding up Osage for cash and jewelry at night, usually gambling it away.  Meanwhile Mollie’s sister Minnie (Jillian Dion, TV's 'Alaska Daily'), married to Bill Smith (Jason Isbell, TV's 'Billions'), looks sicklier day by day, and when she passes, Bill demands that Ernest leave the home where she’s being waked.

Lily Gladstone’s performance veers from regal stoicism to distraught mourning, most alive during her courtship with DiCaprio’s Ernest, whom she finds handsome and is amused by.  When he drives her home and carries her shopping to her front door, she has him open the box to reveal the cowboy hat she’s purchased for him, then invites him in for dinner, slyly commenting on him in her native tongue, taken aback when he admits that yes, he’s like the coyote she’s just called him.  The most curious thing about Ernest Burkhart is that while he either is privy to or directly involved with the murder of all of Mollie’s sisters and her cousin, he genuinely appears to love his wife, with whom he has three children.  DiCaprio is excellent in the role, appearing none too bright but happy to get along with all who cross his path, increasingly troubled and horrified by the fates of his own in-laws, the wild Anna (Cara Jade Myers) shot through the top of the head (and initially deemed a suicide!), Reta (JaNae Collins) and her husband (and former brother-in-law) Bill Smith blown to pieces along with their maid when their house is dynamited, an explosion that blows out Ernest and Mollie’s bedroom windows.  And yet when Hale secures insulin for Mollie’s diabetes, a new and very exclusive treatment (that false largesse again), then urges a vial of additional liquid be added, Ernest goes along, despite his wife’s obvious and serious decline.  At one point, he dumps the remains into his own whiskey – but it is unclear if this is an attempt at suicide or a test of its contents.

This is the first time Scorsese’s two most frequent leading men have starred together in one of his films, the two not having appeared in the same film since 1996’s “Marvin’s Room,” but De Niro is one note here, his charade the same in public as it is in private with only his words betraying his intent.  The same goes for the usually distinctive Plemons, who maintains the same cool façade throughout.  The cast also includes “The Irishman’s” Louis Cancelmi as a cold-hearted hit man and Ty Mitchell of 2010's "True Grit as a more conscious-stricken one; Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother; the third act surprise of John Lithgow as Hale’s prosecutor and Brendan Fraser as his blustering defender and the even more delightful appearance of Larry Fessenden, rocker Jack White and Scorsese himself delivering the usual post credit information titles as announcers on a vintage radio program, one of the director’s best inventions.

Scorsese has gathered most of his usual collaborators to ensure a top notch production with “The Irishman’s” Rodrigo Prieto using overhead shots as blueprints for mayhem, Thelma Schoonmaker’s painstaking editing and the late Robbie Robertson who reached into his own indigenous background for his last score.  New to the team is production designer Jack Fisk, whose work on such films as “The Revenant” and “There Will Be Blood,” made him a natural for this project.

Robin's Review: B+

In the 1920s, a vast amount of oil was discovered bubbling out of the ground under the Osage Nation land in Oklahoma, bringing untold wealth to the Native American inhabitants. Then, one of the nouveau riche dies under suspicious circumstances, then another and another and another in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Martin Scorsese’s three hour and twenty-five minute opus is an adaptation, by Scorsese and Eric Roth, of David Grann’s 2017 bestselling novel, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I have been waiting for the film of the book to come out with great anticipation ever since reading, and loving, it.

I have been seeing a whole bunch of reviews from the brouhaha over the release of “Killers…” and saw many 10/10 ratings. I have a several issues that bothered me and kept me from such an exalted rating. First and foremost, it is, as I said, nearly 3.5 hours long. I have, for many years, advocated that the average film should be 90 minutes, tops, and an epic should not clock in at not much more than two gourds.

While some (a lot of) judicious editing would have, maybe, earned the film all of the accolades, there were two other things, large and small I have a problem with. The adaptation changes, completely, the focus of the story from the FBI investigation to the criminals and their heinous crimes of greed and hate. While the crimes were interesting (though one-note), the investigation (and the titular “Birth of the FBI”) had more cachet and interest for me but was handled in a perfunctory way here.

The other thing that bothered me is concerns with the acting. While Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro do fine jobs portraying the lead, murderous characters, the rest of the cast, especially Lily Gladstone’s native American, Maggie, lack depth and realization. Gladstone is a good actor but her character was little more than stoic, or, later, stoic and dying. The rest, including Jesse Plemons as lead FBI investigator, are nothing, for most, but two-dimensional.
If you want a synopsis of the movie, go see the 10/10 reviews, but also take a look at the reviews that are not so glowing, just for perspective. I, personally, was less than overwhelmed as the credits rolled.

Apple TV releases "Killers of the Flower Moon" in theaters on 10/20/23.  Its streaming release date is TBD.