'Killers Of The Flower Moon' Review: Martin Scorsese's Tale Of Betrayal With Leonardo DiCaprio
Look at this photograph and say if you can find the big, bad wolves trying to blow the house down. May we all count our blessings since director-writer Martin Scorsese hasn't gone anywhere, taking on the western crime drama genre with his latest effort, Killers Of The Flower Moon, a fictional telling of a real-life story that is adapting David Grann's nonfiction book of the same name. Set in the 1920s, we follow Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he returns from World War I to Oklahoma, reuniting with his influential uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) and brother Byron (Scott Shepherd). Land in Oklahoma has become highly valuable thanks to oil that has been found there, most of it controlled by the Osage people.
Ernest ends up meeting and marrying Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage whose family has become rather wealthy thanks to the land they own. Using the not-so-smart Ernest as a pawn, William is revealed to be a ruthless mastermind who plans the murders of many Osage, including a few of those related to Mollie. Bringing terror to Mollie's doorstep, the murders also call the attention of an early version of the FBI, led by agent White (Jesse Plemons).
The central story that Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth are dramatising is certainly worth the 200 minutes presented as it tackles notions about betrayal, justice, racism, colonialism and pure evil with its wide range of characters. It's harrowing and complex in its storytelling and exploration, impressively never featuring a scene that either is fully unnecessary or goes on too long, thanks to some dynamic work by editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Some of the lulls of the film have more to do with the overall framework and how it influences the text and subtext of a few scenes, since after the first hour Scorsese and Roth do lose some of the emotion and intricacies with narrow character development. Scorsese consistently directs with great effect, from plenty of depth in his frames to potent blocking to display the changing power dynamics, but the writing doesn't always have that kind of truthfulness.
Part of the reason why those things don't always work on a character level is the casting of DiCaprio and De Niro, both of whom aren't always what the screenplay sets them out to be. DiCaprio carefully balances Ernest's ignorance with his deceitfulness so his mindset isn't entirely predictable, but the script holds him on a pedestal that the actor doesn't reach with his appearance or essence. De Niro on the other hand is pretty much described as this dark force, which feels false since the actor sometimes looks like he blew his back 15 minutes before rolling and is fighting through the pain, as far as his posture and movement goes. Both actors preserve their technique and deliver all of the feelings the actors experience but their inclusion can also feel like a pact made in the boys' club, underlined by the wonderful casting of unknown indigenous actors by Rene Haynes and Ellen Lewis.
Gladstone isn't one of those unknowns per se but she's proven to be a wonderful choice either way. She comes out with a varied, moving and demanding performance that anchors the storytelling every time that the movie calls for it. It's a battle between Mollie's kind heart hoping that there is some humanity in Ernest whilst also often being a step ahead of him, even knowing that this is a cataclysmic tragedy but her morality isn't letting her to properly admit the fact, possibly guided by her genuine love toward Ernest or their children. Gladstone strikingly expresses all of that with her eyes, laughter and portrait of sadness.
With the film's craft, Jack Fisk's production design reflects Mollie's compassion, William's two-faced nature and Ernest's flaws in terms of their surroundings while also giving that depth to Scorsese's frames with lovely sets, vehicles and decor. Composer Robbie Robertson's crowd of acoustic guitars and wailing sounds emphasises the story's importance—though at times it's slightly overused—as does Rodrigo Prieto's photography that lets the violence sit in wide shots, as if to show that no one is hearing the cries for help, making you, the audience, a witness in that horror. That is well and truly upsetting, and it is the emotion you're expected to deliberate afterwards.
Smileys: Production design, Lily Gladstone, story, directing
Frowneys: Some issues with structure and casting
This one dude might be the king of tragedy.