Michael Lee explores Martin Scorsese’s latest film.
For Scorsese narrative is sacred and cinema is church, gospel, and the Holy Word. Killers of the Flower Moon is a film that bears strange fruit. In this modern world of endless content, streaming, and numbers, Scorsese’s new film is a testament to a mission antithetical to the zeitgeist. It’s a film with an unyielding commitment to the power of cinema and artistic expression. For myself and countless others, Scorsese is the patron saint of Cinema and the consummate custodian of Cinematic tradition. The moral lens of Catholicism has long haunted Scorsese’s oeuvre and Killers of the Flower Moon, is little different in this regard. Flower Moon is if nothing else a true tale of profound spiritual anguish.
In the golden fields of Osage county in Oklahoma, the ground rumbles, and an earthquake brings oil up to the surface. Overnight the Osage tribe became some of the wealthiest people in America. But where sheep flock, wolves roam. And many white men driven by a purveying sense of American exceptionalism and brazen entitlement, actively plot to transfer the wealth back into their rightful hands. One such man is the well-respected farmer William King Hale (Robert De Niro) who in public treats the Osage with respect and compassion, but privately conceals a poisonous hatred and contempt. This is the most malignant ingrained racism imaginable because it’s hidden in plain sight, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Hales’ vendetta to restore the wealth to the White men knows no limits and he encourages his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) a WWI veteran, to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone) a beautiful Osage woman with significant Oil rights. When his Uncle welcomes him into the fold it’s a baptism born of sin and fire. Ernest is emboldened by ambition, and blinded by a self-righteous entitlement to power and wealth, and he succumbs to sin like a duck to water. But his addiction and blind obedience to his Uncle risks robbing him of his humanity and the deep love he develops for Mollie. Ernest suffocates in sin and is desperate for a path to Salvation, but is too late? Of course, once those Osage bodies keep dropping, and those Oil rights keep going to white men, quiet whispers and speculation turn into controversy, and the FBI gets called in to find out what the hell is going on in Oklahoma.
Scorsese and Eric Roth’s script is a razor-sharp adaptation of David Grann’s prolific journalistic account of the murders of Osage Natives in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. Flower Moon, is a taut historical thriller about a malicious conspiracy to marry, murder, and steal the oil rights of Osage women. Scorsese has crafted a triumphant masterpiece like no other. The film digs deep into the raw brutality of modern American history. And it does so with a visceral, dirt under the fingernails reality, where fire burns and blood pours more than rain.
Scorsese’s cinematic lens has lost none of its ferocity, as it pierces the earth, tearing its rawhide open, and exposing the naked emotional core. Scorsese is supported on this mission by his fellow lifelong journeyman, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. Prieto’s deft cinematography and lighting shines upon the land, and the wicked and loving hearts, of the men and women there. Oklahoma is painted like a 20th-century Sodom or Gomorrah on the brink of collapse, and oil derricks poke skyward, like devil horns in the setting sun.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is an otherworldly miracle. He breathes life into Ernest and makes his heart beat blood, sweat, and tears, as a man torn between love and greed. He’s a wretched shell of a man poisoned by a blood lust for wealth. Lily Gladstone’s performance is a prayer, it’s an act of pure devotion. She, without a doubt, holds the entire film together, it couldn’t work without her. Of course, then there’s DeNiro, who goes pound for pound one last time with a robust performance as ‘Hale’, and boy has he still got it. Hale is a straight-up bastard and DeNiro doesn’t flinch. He switches gears from charming to malevolent in the blink of an eye, it’s probably his best performance in decades.
Flower Moon is a brutal historical tale and a haunting late-stage masterpiece. Scorsese has entwined the cinematic myth of the Western with this authentic historical drama and it’s transcendent. This is new territory for film and it’s a pleasure to live in a time where audiences still get to partake in that experience together. Cinema at its very best unearths the flaws and conflicts of human nature, and in doing so helps us navigate the world. With that in mind it’s safe to say in these dark days Killers of the Flower Moon is a beacon in the darkness guiding us towards the light. Amen.
Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas from 20th October 2023.