Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Packs a Punch

Read the book and see the movie. The order doesn’t much matter, as David Grann’s best-selling Killers of the Flower Moon is an incredibly emotional read, while Martin Scorsese’s adaption is an example of elevated filmmaking. Of course, it’s understandable if a book detailing a repulsive historic travesty is not your cup of tea, or if a three-and-a-half-hour movie on the same subject holds no appeal for you. However, if you are up for the challenge, both are extraordinary works of art, though surprisingly, quite different experiences.

Oscar-winner Scorsese worked on the script adapting Grann’s novel with Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994), and Scorsese has stated Leonardo DiCaprio encouraged some changes in perspective. Scorsese also spent a great deal of time with Osage folks making sure to gain insight on how to properly tell their story with all due sensitivity and respect. And what a story it is. While reading Grann’s book, I remained in a state of disbelief that this tragic story from the 1920’s was not common knowledge. In contrast, I felt the telling of this story in the movie, softened the edges just a bit.

Oscar-winner DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, a man returning to town after serving in the First World War. Ernest is a simple man, and DiCaprio plays him with a Sling Blade jawline and a constant state of being a half-step behind goings on. He’s not a total sap, but close enough that he can be manipulated. This is especially true when it comes to his rancher Uncle William King Hale played by two-time Oscar winner Robert DeNiro. The two men are related but seemingly share no other characteristics. “King” is a master schemer who has spent decades cultivating a relationship and image with the Osage, only to secretly take advantage of their trust at every opportunity. Ernest is a self-described lazy man who ‘loves money,’ though he has little interest in earning it the hard way.

There are multiple relationships that are crucial to follow closely. Ernest and his uncle, Ernest and his Osage wife Mollie (a brilliant Lily Gladstone), Hale and the Osage, Federal investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) and everyone to whom he speaks, and then the network of interactions between Ernest and the locals. The long roster of characters jumps in numbers again during the final act, which offers courtroom drama and interrogations that deliver the conclusion. It’s the first act where Scorsese portrays the dramatic shift from the “old” Osage culture to their staggering newfound wealth.

Of course, at the core of all of this is the despicable scheme used by Hale in a heartless strategy to steal the wealth. For those who haven’t yet read the book, it’s best if no more of the story is known prior to seeing the movie. One thing that can be disclosed is that this true story proves the exception to “them with the gold make the rules.” This was also the first case of the newly formed FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

As always, Scorsese has assembled a deep supporting cast to complement the stellar leads. A few of those playing key roles include Tantoo Cardinal, Gene Jones (the coin flip clerk in No Country for Old Men), John Lithgow, Oscar winner Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, Jason Isbell, Jillian Dion, Scott Shepherd, William Belleau, Sturgill Simpson, Ty Mitchell, Tommy Schultz, (personal favorite) Barry Corbin, Pete Yorn, and Jack White.

With apologies to Jesse Plemons who is solid as Tom White, it’s the three leads who captivate us. DiCaprio turns in what is likely his best-ever performance, while DeNiro eerily captures the sneaky and devastating evil of Hale (and we get a nod to his Al Capone role from 36 years ago). What can we say about Lily Gladstone? She was a standout in Certain Women (2016), and here she is the heart and soul of the story (though DiCaprio’s Ernest gets much more screen time). Her expressive eyes convey so much, even when she speaks no words.

In addition to the talented cast, Scorsese’s technical group is just as outstanding. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) perfectly balances the vastness of the setting with the intimate moments. Production Designer Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood, 2007) delivers the look and feel of the times, while three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker works her magic as an Editor to create a manageable flow of this epic. The film’s score, expertly tied to the story’s measured pacing, comes from Robbie Robertson (longtime leader of The Band), who passed away soon after. There is a Scorsese cameo, and I left the theater thinking how unusual it is to find a movie so ambitious in scale, yet so intimate and searing in its personal moments. Some may find the larger story a bit difficult to grasp, and that’s likely due to our humanity and desire to believe in the non-existence of this level of evil.