Martin Scorsese’s latest film is a failure of execution and insight, a revisionist Western that hasn’t resolved its central questions. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon has a terrific subject at its heart. It is the early 1920s and the dispossessed Osage First Nations people have been shunted to a reservation in Oklahoma. However, the discovery of oil on this land results in the Osage almost overnight becoming some of the richest people in the world. As outlined in David Grann’s nonfiction book, on which the screenplay is based, the sudden surge of oil wealth transforms the traditional structures and culture of the Osage. It also leads to white gold-diggers and grifters descending onto the community. One of the most venal and most heinous is Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), who masterminds a plot to have his nephews and family marry into the Osage and then kill the women to inherit the property rights to the land. Scores of people, largely indigenous, were brutally killed for Hale to accumulate his wealth.
There is scope for tragedy but also for searing black comedy in the bitter and complicated story of the Osage. With its running time of 206 minutes, Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth are aiming for a film that is epic in scope, a revisionist dismantling of the colonialist and racist myths of the Western and of frontier capitalism. Yet Scorsese’s film is so confused in conception and so undisciplined in execution it has no emotional force. There is also a timidity in the filmmakers’ approach to the subject, which consistently forecloses any possibility of the indigenous characters developing real presence and complexity.
A pivotal problem is the miscasting of the two central male roles, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, one of Hale’s nephews, a World War I veteran who is rootless and on the make. Burkhart visits his uncle in Fairfax, in Osage country, and is drawn into Hale’s malevolent campaign to defraud the Osage. DiCaprio’s boyishness has always been core to his persona as an actor, but the truth is he is now too old to convincingly play a young man. More compromising for the film, however, is the laziness of De Niro’s performance. Hale is meant to be so charismatic that not only can he seduce his family into acts of malevolent intent but he can also charm and fool the wary and distrusting Osage. De Niro’s choice to deliberately accentuate Hale’s sliminess and disingenuousness immediately raises our distrust as an audience. Sensing his malice and insincerity, we can’t help but wonder at the gullibility of those who place their trust in him.
De Niro hasn’t thought through the specific circumstances and history that give rise to his character. Hale is meant to be a subversion of the Western white male hero, to represent the colonialist and rapacious urges that are masked by the traditional hero’s stoicism and severity. Yet De Niro employs the same tics and mannerisms he brought to his gangsters in films such as Casino (1995) or The Irishman (2019). It is impossible for the film to achieve an epic stature when the central character is so wretchedly played. There isn’t a moment of his performance that I trusted or thought believable.
The most convincing part of the film is when DiCaprio’s Burkhart sets about wooing Mollie (Lily Gladstone), one of a group of wealthy Osage sisters. I first saw Gladstone in Kelly Reichardt’s superb Certain Women, and I remember sitting up straight in my seat, dumbfounded by the quiet command of her acting. In her early scenes in Killers of the Flower Moon she plays Mollie with an unerring confidence. We see this young woman’s intelligence and her instinctive caution, and we sense that even when she finds herself increasingly attracted to Ernest she doesn’t abandon her mistrust. Mollie is aroused by this man, who she knows is a hustler, a “coyote”. Gladstone has the assurance to play a sensual woman who is wise to the dangers of her own desires. DiCaprio, too, seems galvanised when performing alongside her and their courtship has a beguiling erotic charge.
Unfortunately, very soon Mollie begins to be poisoned. Gladstone is increasingly confined to her bed. We miss her animation and so does DiCaprio. Acting alongside De Niro, his performance becomes unrelentingly grim. Scorsese keeps framing his pinched, agonised face in close-up, and it makes no sense given his culpability in Hale’s schemes. He’s playing a stupid man, which is not the same thing as naivety, and it’s clear the actor is at a loss for how to do this. The script does him no favours, either, because Roth and Scorsese haven’t worked out their own responses to Burkhart. There are constant cutaways to economically executed violent scenes that confirm his gleeful complicity in the murders, but we are also meant to believe he has been conned by his uncle and that he feels a moral gnawing at his actions.
That confusion of intent mars both the narrative drive and the formal execution of the film. It lurches from referencing the Western to becoming a gangster film to being a courtroom drama. There are a couple of scenes – a fire at night, long shots of the Oklahoma plains – that consciously evoke Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Yet Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t have that film’s elemental potency. Hale’s venality and Burkhart’s idiocy are too mundane to carry the weight of myth.
The greatest disappointment is the underuse and short-changing of the indigenous actors. Cara Jade Myers is acerbically funny as Anna, Mollie’s sister, and the film comes alive when she is in the scenes. But she is killed off early. Very few of the First Nations actors are given substantive roles. There’s also a complexity at the heart of the film that never gets addressed. Mollie and her family are proud of their heritage and history, yet most of the women choose white men to marry. One senses the issues raised by that question are difficult for the non-indigenous Scorsese and Roth to deal with.
Scorsese is a great filmmaker, and it gives me no pleasure to be so condemning of this film. I don’t doubt the genuineness of his and Roth’s intentions to make a statement that addresses the historic and ongoing colonial violence of the United States. There are flashes of his brilliance, in the opening influenced by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and in the shocking elegance of the abrupt violence that punctuates the film. Yet for most of its long running time Killers of the Flower Moon feels compromised and therefore unconvincing. Is there anything more enervating than a timorous tragedy? We keep seeing Osage being murdered, keep seeing the actors emote, and we feel nothing. Killers of the Flower Moon is like spending three-and-a-half hours watching history as it is pissed up against the wall.
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