Earlier this year, lauded director Martin Scorsese revealed to Time that he’d chosen to rewrite an earlier draft of a screenplay he’d begun for Killers of the Flower Moon, which is based on the 2017 nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann.
“After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,” Scorsese told the magazine, doubling down on the idea that he’d listened to feedback from the Osage people on whose land the film was made and around whom much of the story revolves.
If that’s the case, however, one wonders how much whiter his original script was, as Scorsese’s newest film with longtime collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro still feels pretty dang white.
From a bird’s eye view, Killers tells the tale of the 1920s Oklahoma oil boom on Native land that led to a series of heinous murders and, in turn, the formation of the FBI. Here, DiCaprio plays World War I vet Ernest Burkhart, a sort of dimwitted would-be proto-gangster who heads to Oklahoma to live and work with his uncle William (De Niro), a rancher kingpin who tips the scales of commerce in his favor through any means necessary. DiCaprio turns in one of the more nuanced performances of his career as the unscrupulous Ernest, and De Niro’s inwardly cold, outwardly loving demeanor feels terrifying.
As was the order of the day, Ernest weds a local Osage woman named Mollie Kyle (a brilliant yet underused Lily Gladstone, Siksikaitsitapi and NiMíiPuu) as part of his uncle’s bid to access the oil money heading to her and her people. Whether Ernest truly loves Mollie or not becomes irrelevant, however, the longer he remains accessory to the murders befalling her family and people. But when Mollie heads to Washington, DC, to beg the president for aid, so begins the earliest days of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which comes knocking at Ernest’s door in the form of Breaking Bad alum Jesse Plemons. The rest is pretty typical Scorsese fare, from the anachronistic music that flares in the background of some scenes to the authentic yet not gratuitous violence.
Mollie Kyle’s attempts to get answers for her peoples’ murders are central to the Killers’ plot. Pity, then, that Gladstone’s role is so relegated to reactionary or plot device beats. She’s a natural, from her mournful wail in the face of tragedy to her sly expressions that say so much. She more than keeps up with the titanic De Niro and DiCaprio, even if they have about a zillion more lines than her. It’s still nice to see a legend like Tantoo Cardinal playing even a small role; the Indigenous actors who permeate the film are all fine actors across the board—particularly Yancey Red Corn, whose gravitas is palpable.
Killers sort of fizzles out toward the end. Some sturdy but anemic performances from the likes of John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser work out OK, but not a one rates as much attention as the core cast. Leo will likely win an Oscar for this one, and Gladstone will surely at least be nominated. If nothing else, though, this is another one of those “representation matters” moments in recent film and TV history that proves Native folks more than deserve their place at the table, just...maybe they should be the ones doing the storytelling if only the old guard would get out of their way long enough to let them soar.
+Gladstone nails it; gorgeous cinematography; long but never boring
-Still pretty focused on white dudes; too many freaking names to keep track of
Killers of the Flower Moon
With Gladstone, DiCaprio, De Niro, Red Corn, Cardinal, Plemons, Fraser and Lithgow
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 206 min.