November 17, 2023 at 3:35 p.m.
Allow me a moment to share my affection for the new and improved seating at the local cinema. I cannot overstate how much I enjoy leaning back in my plush recliner and swinging my little table around to hold my beverage, which may or may not contain alcohol. And if I’m really lucky, I will have the option to heat my comfy seat which is a joy in itself even if it is 90 degrees outside.
These comforts are especially appreciated when the movie you are about to see is more than three hours long. Much has been said about the running time of Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (R). At 3h 26m, it’s longer than Reds (1981) and Gandhi (1982), the last two studio films to feature that long-lost gift to moviegoers, the intermission.
The film, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann, tells the horrific story of the early 20th Century murders of members of the Osage Tribe, who after being kicked off their homeland, struck oil in Oklahoma, making them extremely wealthy and an instant target for greedy, evil white men. Even though the Osage owned the rights to the profits from the oil, they were forced to go to government-appointed guardians for permission to access the money. If only that was the worst thing they had to endure.
The evilest and greediest of the white men is Bill “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). On the surface, he’s a friend of the Osage. He speaks their language, builds schools and attends their celebrations. But we soon find out he just wants their money, ALL their money! When his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leo DiCaprio), shows up looking for work after the War, Hale has a better idea. Marry an Osage woman and inherit her oil headrights. And by the way, you’ll probably have to kill her and a few other people too.
Ernest sets his sights on Mollie Kyle, played by a mesmerizing Lily Gladstone. She is one of four sisters of a widowed mother, all living comfortably on their considerable oil money. Mollie suspects that Ernest, like just about every white man who makes their way to town, is pursuing her for her wealth, but she falls for him anyway. And it does appear that Ernest has genuine feelings for Mollie. But he’s also lazy and more than once declares “I love money.”
As more Osage are shot, poisoned, and blown up, several of them related to Mollie, Ernest becomes less a pawn and more of a bad guy. DiCaprio’s choice to play the role with a distracting permanent scowl and furrowed brow doesn’t exactly help his cause.
We know that Scorcese loves working with De Niro and DiCaprio, but both are too old for their roles. DiCaprio is 48, about 20 years too old to play a dim, easy-to-manipulate, guy returning from WWI. The real William Hale was in his 40s during his crime spree. De Niro, who is excellent and compellingly slimy, just turned 80.
You want to talk about perfect casting? As the emotional core of Killers of the Flower Moon, Gladstone turns in a thoughtful, smart and soulful performance. It is heartbreaking to see Mollie realize that Ernest, who is actually an attentive husband and devoted father, might have something to do with the murders. When she bravely travels to Washington, DC to bring her people’s plight to authorities outside her corrupt town, she knows the potential consequences.
When the brand new FBI gets involved, bringing Tom White (Jesse Plemons) and his agents to town, it’s only a matter of time before Hale, Burkhart and the rest of the gang get caught. Finally, something to alleviate the grimness of the previous two hours.
Scorcese has an undeniable gift for transporting his audience to another time and place. As in Gangs of New York, Age of Innocence and The Aviator, the director has captured the look and slightly grimy feel of the last days of the lawless Old West. Scorcese consulted with the Osage and cast Native American actors. The result is as accurate and sensitive a depiction of Native American life and culture as I’ve ever seen on screen.
Like Reds, Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia, and unlike, let’s say any Marvel movie, Killers of the Flower Moon has an important story to tell that justifies its running time, but barely. Could Scorsese and his long-time editor,Thelma Schoonmaker, have trimmed 20 minutes or so? Definitely. Would I have preferred a bit more backstory on the Osage victims and a bit less mustache twirling from De Niro and his criminal cohorts? Absolutely. Still, it’s an extraordinary, heartbreaking story and Gladstone’s star-making performance makes Killers of the Flower Moon, one of the finest films of the year.
Killers of the Flower Moon: 4.5 stars out of 5