It may be an unpopular view, but I just don’t dig many of the films of Martin Scorsese, arguably the most revered director working today. Give him a gangster scenario, with explosions of blood, male braggadocio and women getting shoved around, and the critics and audiences are wowed; from Raging Bull to Casino to The Departed to The Irishman, that’s the formula that we seem to love him for. But when Scorsese flexes his muscles on other subjects whether via King of Comedy, Kundun, The Age of Innocence, Hugo or Silence, that fanboy enthusiasm seems to be posted missing. His Wolf of Wall Street feels like a boys club celebration of the crime of capitalist excess, and while I can’t knock stone-cold classics like Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, I can’t help feeling that what people like so much about Scorsese is his sympathetic portrayal of violent men.
Having got all this out of the way, Killers of the Flower Moon may well be Scorsese’s most mature film to date, a thoughtful, detailed, angry account of how respected white men abused and murdered their way through many Native American women without much sanction back in the 1920’s. If his earlier films walked, and occasionally fell off a tightrope of glamourizing violence, Killers of the Flower Moon sticks the landing by focusing on a strong female character, Millie played by Lily Gladstone. She’s a prosperous Native American of the Osage Nation tribe, wowed by returning soldier Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). He’s physically and emotionally shell-shocked by his experience of war, but the influence of his uncle William King Hale proves to be his undoing. Hale (De Niro relishing his “Call me king’ line) is working on a slow process of funneling much of the Native American wealth into his own family pocket, and while there’s the kind of sporadic threats and intimidation that might be expected from a Jim Jordan speaker campaign, Hale’s lockstep partnership with local lawmen allows him to steal and murder the locals on an industrial scale.
Killers of the Flower Moon has a violent, compelling true-life crime story at its heart, adapted by Eric Roth and Scorsese from David Gann’s book. ‘Can you see the wolves in this picture”? runs a caption in the book about the Osage that Burkhart reads for local colour, but the wolves are hiding in plain sight here. In a society where you’re more lightly to face consequences ‘for kicking a dog than killing an Indian’, the narrative spirals down into dark, animalistic recesses, but the picture takes a lift when Millie’s cry for help leads to an Elliott Ness-type FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) being dispatched to get to the bottom of the racist, near genocidal angle that Hale’s men have taken with impunity.
Scorsese has plenty of history with DiCaprio and De Niro, and elicits huge performances from both, with De Niro a fierce adversary draped in respectability, and DiCaprio capturing the torn position of a man who knows what’s right but can’t get any purchase on his own morality. But what makes this film worthy of the five star rating is Gladstone; although she doesn’t speak much, what she says is devastatingly to the point. A razzle-dazzle meta ending, with a delicious send-off cameo from Scorsese, should ensure that Killers is an awards contender; it’s certainly one of Scorsese’s best films, and that’s saying something.
Thanks to Paramount Pictures UK for providing big screen access to this film, Killers of the Flower Moon is out in the UK, US and worldwide from Oct 20th 2023.