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  • Writer's pictureKurt Loder

Killers of the Flower Moon: More money, more problems

Paramount Pictures Leonardo DiCaprio (right) star in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is a Martin Scorsese movie with little in the way of classic Scorsese signifiers—no snarling New York gangsters, no steaming Manhattan hellscapes. No New York at all, in fact. The picture is based on David Grann’s 2017 book about a wave of murders of Native Americans in Oklahoma’s Osage Nation in the 1920s, and the attendant expansion of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation to get to the bottom of it.

While short on traditional Scorsese elements, the movie is clearly the work of a master director. Among the memorable images is a shot of frenzied white grave-robbers digging with their hands down to a freshly interred Native corpse in search of jewelry, and a group of eerily silhouetted men raking among the smoldering ruins of a bombed building. There’s also a more than usually restrained deployment of the punchy rhythms that Scorsese has always devised with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and a cast that includes such Scorsese stalwarts as Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

But Killers might not be the sort of movie that Scorsese fans expect. And like his previous film, the low-luster mob drama The Irishman, this one is nearly three and a half hours long.

Grann’s book title is a Native American reference to the springtime arrival of vast prairie meadows full of flowers, and to the subsequent infestations of invasive botanical species that strangle and kill them. It’s a neat metaphor for the Osage tribe in the early 20th century, when its members grew enormously wealthy following the discovery of huge oil deposits under reservation lands and were targeted by predatory white grifters for what was seen to be their unearned wealth. (Scorsese shows us the social inversion this gusher of money caused, with the formerly oppressed Natives now swanning around in fancy cars and the formerly dominant whites working as their chauffeurs and domestic servants.)

The story is a complex narrative involving mineral rights and laws of inheritance, and Scorsese (who wrote the script with Eric Roth) sticks with it and manages to make it compelling. The problems with the movie are related to its muddled characters. DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart—a World War I veteran who marries into an Osage family in order to inherit his wife’s oil rights—is a dim bulb who we’re asked to believe sincerely loves his spouse, a raven-haired prairie Madonna named Mollie (the serene Lily Gladstone). And she is likewise unbelievable: Mollie knows her husband is out for her money but nevertheless finds him sweet and lovable, even after realizing he’s slowly poisoning her to death.

De Niro’s William King Hale (“call me King”) is DiCaprio’s nefarious Svengali, a politically connected cattle baron who poses as a staunch friend of the Osage people but maintains a side business recruiting local lowlifes to murder them with guns or bombs or whatever else might be at hand. Hale is a character of no complexity—he’s just pure evil—and De Niro might have tossed off this performance while napping. Similarly, DiCaprio’s Burkhart is simply not persuasive as a real-world human being—how are we to accept his supposedly deep love for his diabetic wife as we watch him injecting her with tainted doses of the new drug called insulin?

Some of the movie’s best performances are arrayed around the stars. Jesse Plemons is a solid pleasure as federal agent Tom White, a simple man on a no-nonsense mission to find the killers of what might have been scores of Osage victims and put them away. And musician Jason Isbell is the very incarnation of heartland integrity as Bill Smith, the truly loving husband of another Osage woman. (Isbell is one of several musicians in the cast, among them Jack White and country-rock star Sturgill Simpson.) John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser are wasted as contending attorneys in the movie’s courtroom scenes, but Gladstone—a Native American actor best known for her work in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women—exudes real magnetism here using little more than her eyes and a carefully muted smile. Unfortunately, as written, her character never quite registers as a key presence in the story.

If nothing else, the movie serves as a gripping history lesson about the destruction of an indigenous culture, and the heartlessness of the destroyers. “Most Osage don’t live past 50,” Hale tells Burkhart. “How’s Molly?”


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