Thursday, October 19, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon - Review

 There is a small line in Killers of the Flower Moon that so succinctly summarizes the film’s themes its a wonder they didn’t use it as the tagline (though it was used in a trailer). “Do you see the wolves in this picture?” is pulled from a children’s book about the Osage Nation read by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhardt, pointing out the predators that seek to feast on those around them, and perfectly setting up Martin Scorsese’s ambitious adaptation. The biggest difference being, the wolves of this story are hiding in plain sight, dealing out death and violence with a mundane attitude and little hesitation, so long as it benefits them.

At the turn of the 20th century, oil brought a fortune to the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight. The wealth of these Native Americans immediately attracted white interlopers, who manipulated, extorted, and stole as much Osage money as they could before resorting to murder.

While the subject material of Killers of the Flower Moon may be outside the realm of a traditional gangster flick, it’s completely in line with everything that director Martin Scorsese enjoys exploring throughout his filmography. The corruption runs deep, seeping into the soil to create a landscape that’s violent and unforgiving. Where the original novel is essentially the origin story of the F.B.I., Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth focus on the personal perspective of Mollie and Ernest Burkhardt. Injustice and prejudice are presented not simply as isolated incidents, but as a persistent presence that’s inherent to the formation of wealth and inequity over the last century. 

At the end of the day, the greatest directors know that it takes a team to craft a film, and Scorsese has assembled some of the best for this outing. The hum of Robbie Robertson’s score adds a palpable tension to the film, a steady beat that’s always looming in the background. Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork offers dynamic visuals, from the sweeping pans over the Osage Nation, capturing the vast, beautiful landscapes, to the intense, sweaty close-ups. And what more could be said about the great Thelma Schoonmaker that hasn’t been said already? The unwieldy runtime could doom most films, but Schoonmaker keeps the pace steady, taking the audience through this multi-year epic without ever losing what makes this saga tick.

With all that being said, what will almost certainly be the talk of the theaters this weekend are the performances. It’s not shocking that the power of Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese’s longtime favorites, acting across from each other fuels a lot of the tension throughout the narrative. They’re both all time greats, and it shouldn’t be a shock to see them at this level, but it’s certainly a wonder to see play out. But the true standout is Lily Gladstone. It’s as if she was born for this role, never leaning into the dramatics too far, and grounding the film in the truth of her character. 

In the wrong hands, Killers of the Flower Moon could stumble into the mistake so many films make by becoming a broader statement then it needs to be. And while the film certainly does have something to say about humanity, and specifically America, the film’s heart always returns the characters and the story its meant to tell. It’s a masterful assembling of creative puzzle pieces to create not only a spectacular adaptation, but one of the years best films.

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