A long movie is not a problem, particularly when the legendary Martin Scorsese produces it. Here he summoned actors Robert De Niro for the tenth time and Leonardo DiCaprio for the fifth. Together, they made everything from Taxi Driver to The Wolf of Wall Street. They are wonderful and we love to see them on screen. Also appearing are John Lithgow and the still fake-fat Brendan Fraser, both in cameos as lawyers later in the film. But I believe the real star of the film is Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie, the wife of Ernest Burkhart, played by DiCaprio.
Martin himself appears twice in the film. Before the opening credits roll, he gives a passionate introduction to the film he’s long desired to produce, about a topic that means much to him. At the film's end, he appears as a narrator in a live radio play (pre-television) that summarizes the story we’ve just seen.
Elsewhere in the film are a number of Fox Newsreel silent-movie-era headlines about the rise of the Osage people subsequent to the discovery of oil on their land. Instant wealth brought with it instant interlopers from white society, initially as predators and eventually as murderers.
Scorsese and his period-specific tactics seem gimmicky and silly, disrupting the flow of the film unnecessarily. We get that the film is set in the 1920s. Fake old footage adds nothing. It is otherwise beautifully filmed, set, and costumed.
The sad undercurrent of the events within Killers of the Flower Moon is their proximity between our time and the “Trail of Tears” that came before them. Despite the indignity, treachery, and horrors inflicted upon Native Americans in our country during the previous hundred years, the Osage tribe found themselves willingly thrust center-stage into yet another tragedy beyond their imagination. We watch it all play out as De Niro uses his nephew DiCaprio as a thick-headed puppet in a marriage-and-murder scheme to inherit Osage wealth.
Gladstone masterfully balances trust with cautious suspicion in her soft-spoken demeanor, but eventually is taken in despite the death of her entire family. But the murders that occur at the behest of William Hale (De Niro) don’t need to be acted out in scene after scene. Their violence is gratuitous. Likewise, the investigation and eventual trial seem like an entirely second film that could be cut to shorten the movie.
Despite its flaws, Killers of the Flower Moon is worth seeing as an educational experience, though maybe at home, where you can create your own intermission. And those who prefer not to learn about or believe in episodes of American history that cause them emotional discomfort might be better off watching old John Wayne westerns.
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) runs 3 hours and 26 minutes and is rated R.
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