Killers of the Flower Moon
(dir. Martin Scorsese)
By: Adam Freed
Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t the best Martin Scorsese film of all time, but it resides in very close proximity. The octogenarian director has helmed a fistful of the greatest films in history and by the time he chooses retirement, he will have certainly added at least one more to that noble list. Adapted from David Grann’s powerful work of historical non-fiction, Flower Moon weaves the heartbreaking story about a white man’s greed in an America that was never designed to allow for the success of outsiders. Featuring virtuoso performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and most notably Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese‘s best offering in nearly two decades.
In many ways, Killers of the Flower Moon explores rare new territory for Scorsese, who concluded his triumvirate of gangster films with The Irishmen (2019) and with it left behind some of his readily identifiable filmmaking hallmarks. Yes, Flower Moon still employs some extended tracking shots and rapid editing cuts, made famous in Goodfellas (1990), but here Martin Scorsese’s skill and brilliance is in his willingness to let a camera linger, not afraid to take audiences calmly by the hand to places where they would not be comfortable going on their own. Scorsese’s identifiable gift was once the frenetic style with which he carved through a story and now it seems to have evolved into his penchant for patience. There are moments in his western epic that feel as if the auteur was holding a little tighter to this film than in years past, clutching captivating moments as if letting them go would be to say goodbye forever.
Despite the challenges of its mammoth run time (3 hours and 26 minutes) Killers of the Flower Moon lays bare the depths of depravity of the human spirit for all to see. There are moments in Scorsese’s epic where the pace feels glacial for those who have already absorbed Grann’s book, but by the time the story reaches its apex, audiences will surely lean in for an unforgettable final act. Bolstering the gravity of the film are three performances sure to settle into the central conversation of Academy voters come awards season. Robert De Niro’s portrayal of William Hale, the de facto mayor of Fairfax, a town inhabited primarily by Osage Nation Native Americans, is calculated and commanding. De Niro’s once bombastic style and gravitational screen occupancy has made way to a controlled calm, more veiled yet equally impactful. Playing Hale’s rather dim war veteran of a nephew Ernest Burkhart is Leonardo DiCaprio, who layers the slow-witted character as equal parts lovable and loathsome. Stealing the spotlight though is Lily Gladstone, a relative unknown when propped against her iconic co-stars, who joyfully matches wits scene upon scene with DiCaprio and walks away unscathed. Gladstone’s performance calls back to Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) as she stood toe to toe with Dustin Hoffman and became the lingering memory of the film despite Hoffman’s headline status.
In the rarest of cases a production is victimized by the prior success of its compiled parts. Scorsese, DiCaprio and De Niro have been transcendent for so long that audience appreciation of their dominance may be muted. The depth and difficulty of their performances remains at a nearly unreachable tier, and therefore may not register with the same appreciation with audiences that it should. Making a movie this detailed look easy is anything but. To witness De Niro admonishing DiCaprio for his lack of foresight, or Gladstone bearing the deep ache of her collective ancestry is to witness Van Gogh’s “impasto” brush strokes in motion. Audiences need not focus on the paint as it dries but rather on the skill with which it is applied to canvas. It is inevitable that at some point, Scorsese will helm his final film. If Killers of the Flower Moon proves to be that culminating event, it will be remembered as a satisfying swansong.
Target Score: 9/10 - Masterclass filmmaking and performances abound in this sly adaptation of David Grann’s historic tale. DiCaprio and De Niro offer lofty performances befitting their noble careers, but the shining discovery in Scorsese’s lengthy film is Lily Gladstone, who announces her career presence with authority.