A huge wave of euphoria hit me about halfway through Martin Scorsese’s latest picture (he gets to call his movies “pictures”, therefore so do I) in that this is a filmmaker still at the top of his game after decades and still creates his movies on his own terms. Seeing something like KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is quite a bit of relief. In 2023 I have seen so many large budget disasters, one after the other, where the focus is more on the money and effects and the story and not the storytelling, also getting caught up in too much current political correctness. Slowing down to an intentional crawl, KILLERS is a story that comes from the soul of its creators and feels like a very sensitive topic, yet is told in such a grand and classic way that you can’t helped but be wrapped up in all of it.
This engrossing story, set in the early 1920s, centres around an Indigenous group of people in Osage, Oklahoma at the discovery of an oil burst and making the group instantly wealthy overnight. Of course, people from around want in on the action which leads to William King Hale (Robert DeNiro) and his nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) who has just returned from the war. Ernest starts as a driver and meets a woman in the Osage group named Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and falls for her, eventually marrying despite objection from the community (there are quite a few bits of dialogue that even mention “the white man” coming into their territory) even though it’s more of a plan by the outside community to marry into the community to inherit the oil money. All the while, many murders and terror are happening in the community around the oil development, many of which are financial.
I feel like I still want to lightly touch around the story here as there are so many complicated elements throughout involving both the Osage county and the white community around it, all in the quest for money. It’s based off of the book by David Grann and the script is by legendary Eric Roth with Scorsese’s involvement, and it is also well publicized that the team also worked closely with the Indigenous communities for proper representation of the story and its horrors. It also isn’t just about Hale and Ernest along with his relationship with an Osage woman but the many characters around it of many different backgrounds. One particular performance I loved was from the always reliable Jesse Plemons, playing an FBI agent around the time the agency was formed who takes a no-nonsense approach to finding out about the killings, and even some terrific supporting turns from Brendan Fraser as a lawyer, Canadian legend Tantoo Cardinal who has some key moments of her own, a very welcome appearance from John Lithgow and even Jack White of all people in a small role, just to name a few. As per usual, Scorsese gives three dimensions to everyone on screen.
There are many unsettling moments here, in particular some sudden bursts of violence and killings that left me shocked, from a wife that is suddenly shot in the middle of a day to an execution of an Osage woman that is shown in explicit detail. There’s also a sequence with an explosion that we witness at a moment a key character does from another perspective, leading to an absolutely chilling moment about halfway through the movie. Scorsese has always been known for his sudden and brutal violent moments and the moments aren’t as in your face as something like GOODFELLAS or CASINO, but the emotion is just as much there. Earlier this fall I saw the outstanding THE ZONE OF INTEREST from filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, where he kept the atrocities off screen and more implied and felt, and of course all of this depends on the vision of the filmmakers. KILLERS reminds me of some of the more horrifying moments in SCHINDLER’S LIST where the subject matter is right in your face.
Even with this level of violence and realism, with KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON I felt championed as a moviegoer and respected. This is a movie you need to get mentally prepared for. Yes, the running time is nearly three and a half hours and I can already see the mouth-breathing crowd, usually those who demand intermissions because they can’t pay attention or train their bladders, already crying fowl over the run time. And yet I sat transfixed in my seat through its entire run time, barely able to move, and it’s a movie I know will be very rewarding on repeat viewings. The pacing and the tone of KILLERS is intentionally very slow, and as a movie fan you really need to get on the same pace as the movie, which is drawn out to keep you involved with everything that is happening and let you bask in the storytelling. The way that Scorsese uses his visual and storytelling is at such a different tone and feeling than something like the endless narration of GOODFELLAS or the shotgun blast moments of CASINO, or even his earlier tone of RAGING BULL, and it has a much more stylized and “aged” look and feel than his earlier pictures.
Of course, many will go for the lead work of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, and both as per usual are outstanding here. I almost immediately noticed DiCaprio’s look and mannerisms (even right down to his teeth…yes I notice teeth) and how much it departs from his other work. DeNiro has some of his trademark . And yet if any performance comes out of left field and totally blew me away, it’s the subtle but powerful work from Lily Gladstone as Mollie. I had heard of her praise from early reviews but I was not prepared for a performance of this power. It’s the kind of classy work that I don’t feel we see as much, and a lot of her expressions and mannerisms speak volumes about her culture.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON represents a career high for Scorsese with nearly five decades of great movies and shows the man at such a mature responsibility as a filmmaker. He gets absolutely everything right and it works right down to its its core and of course even on a technical level; I could go on and on about Thelma Schoonmaker’s flawless editing, the subtle but effective music by the late Robbie Robertson or Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning widescreen cinematography and all of the outstanding production design that showcases its large production budget on screen, but I want audiences to discover it and come to your own conclusions. I know this will be on my list of the best movies of the year, but I even feel its importance as a story and how it represents its culture is even more important at this time and needs to be seen by as many moviegoers as possible.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is now playing in cinemas. Many thanks to Apple Studios PR for inviting me to screen the film ahead of its release.
Boring Technical Notes: I have been following the production here for quite a while as this is all being produced by Apple Original Films (in this case it is being distributed by Paramount in cinemas) and with this and the upcoming NAPOLEON, it’s quite an exciting time for large budget movies from established filmmakers to still be made and have a profit on both theatrical and its eventual streaming release. Yes, this will look great on my 4k/HDR system at home, but it also needs to be seen in a cinema.
With that said, The movie has an IMAX release, though the movie was shot digitally and in the scope, 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Depending on the size of your IMAX screen and setup this should look and sound great, but should also look wonderful in any good cinema with a good wide-screen (preferrably a “scope” shaped screen). If you are able to find a comfortable theatre with a good sized 2.39:1 scope screen, I’d go for that instead to really relax and get into the movie’s epic length.