Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”) has nothing to prove. The eternally youthful 80-year-old has had a legendary career full of some of the all-time greatest movies. At an age when his peers are probably cashing in their Social Security checks, he is still making profound, riveting and persisting movies. His recent films “Silence” and “The Irishman” don’t show the mark of a man past his prime, but instead declare Scorsese’s work as even more thoughtful and precise now that he’s in his golden years. Scorsese channels the perceptions and experience of someone with six decades of directorial work. His latest release, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” furthers this trend. “Killers” is not only engrossing and crafted with the expected expertise, but its mission is also one of Scorsese’s most consequential, telling the story of a tyrannized group who never received true justice.
Both of Scorsese’s regular muses, Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Robert De Niro (“The Irishman”) are principal characters. The story follows the rise and fall of white gangsters during the 20th century. There is a reckoning, a sense of karma, where characters commit morally despicable acts and are punished by the universe. These elements could describe half of Scorsese’s filmography, but “Killers” differentiates itself by being brutally straightforward. While Scorsese’s “reap what you sow” worldview may not have changed much since “Goodfellas,” any anxiety about sharing it has vanished with this movie. He presents the true horror and evil of this story without any of the glamor of his other gangster works.
The story accounts the systematic murders of the Oklahoma-based Osage Nation members in the 1920s after the tribe discovered oil on their land and became extremely wealthy. Many white businessmen flocked to the scene, first exploiting the tribe through marriage and legal loopholes before turning to calculated homicide. DiCaprio and De Niro play Ernest Burkhart and William King Hale, an uncle and nephew who are especially ruthless with their greed.
DiCaprio’s performance is expectedly nuanced, equal parts empathetic and nauseating. He portrays Ernest with enough charm to keep the audience interested for 3.5 hours, while clearly being a weak and despicable man. De Niro is magnetic, playing a devilish figure made up of greed, ambition and spite, posing as a friendly and trustworthy benefactor. But while watching De Niro immerse himself in William’s barely-contained depravity is compelling, the standout performance of the film is Lily Gladstone (“First Cow”) as Ernest’s wife, Mollie Burkhart.
Mollie carries a quiet sadness and judgment almost representative of the entire Osage Nation. Like the rest of her tribe, she is not oblivious to what is happening to her people, but is powerless to stop it. Gladstone is somehow able to convey both anger and restlessness at the horror that is happening to her family and community through the slightest facial twitches and changes in expression. It is an incredible credit to Gladstone, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (“The Irishman”) to encapsulate some of the most powerful and heartbreaking moments of the movie through simple reaction shots of Mollie’s face.
Schoonmaker’s editing is effortless yet extremely purposeful; her style fills in lots of narrative gaps and allows for necessary inferences without any flashbacks or narration. The cinematography and set design are sharp and gorgeous. What is most wonderful about this movie, however, just like with “The Irishman,” is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even with all the amazing disparate elements, none of them compare to how I felt when all these parts are synthesized into the film’s disheartening conclusion. I felt angry, cynical and disgusted as the credits rolled. These feelings only solidified in the following days.
Even with such raw emotions poured onto me from “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Scorsese’s purpose and thought process felt abundantly clear. He knows his filmmaking days are numbered. He knows his image is that of a great storyteller. But after watching “Silence,” “The Irishman” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” it seems as if Scorsese is judging his career, his choices and himself now that he has lived a full life. In “The Irishman,” he laid out his existential fears of dying alone even after his life-long commitment to making movies. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” his self-judgment applies to his duty as a storyteller and having a large audience to receive it.
The genocidal attack on the Osage people and culture shouldn’t be a footnote in history, extra content for a hokey radio show. It should be chronicled with all the pain that it brought and make the audience feel a measure of this emotion. Scorsese judges people who have omitted this story or recounted it without any denouncement of the murders or empathy for the Osage. And though his motivation for telling this story (and its execution) is far more responsible, he ends “Killers of the Flower Moon” by judging himself as well for even attempting to tell this horrific story in any medium.
Rarely can art be overwhelmingly painful while revealing so much about the artist. His ability to be so meticulous without compromising raw emotion is incredible. This is not a fun movie — it was long, dense and tiring, but it is worth seeing and feeling. Any pain I got from this movie is nothing compared to the despair of the Osage Nation, but because of Scorsese, at least now I can understand a little bit more.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.