Martin Scorsese is arguably the greatest living filmmaker, with a body of work spanning more than five decades that includes stone-cold classics such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. As a result, every new Scorsese film is justifiably anticipated – and his new one even more so.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in a Scorsese movie for the first time, Killers Of The Flower Moon – which premiered at Cannes film festival this month – is set in Osage County, Oklahoma. It’s an area named after the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe who discovered oil on their land in the early 20th century. That oil made them the richest people per capita in America by the 1920s. Sadly, opportunistic white Americans exploited this new wealth by manipulating the Osage people and murdering them on a large scale to steal their assets.
The film focuses on two men who were real figures during this shameful period of American history. That’s local cattle baron Bill Hale (De Niro) and his nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio). We meet them when Ernest has returned from war to a job chauffeuring rich Osage people about the place. While on shift, he meets and quickly falls in love with charismatic Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone). From the start of their relationship, Bill – known to many local white and Native people as “King Hale” because of his prominence – suggests that he and Ernest should make sure Mollie’s wealth is ‘safe’ and that her family are not taken advantage of. This really means that gradually, Mollie’s family should be killed off for Bill and Ernest to take their money. It’s a heartbreaking story and all the more brutal for its surface-level simplicity. Its complexity lies in the sinister ways a network of local criminals goes about conning and then killing the Osage community.
Now on his sixth collaboration with Scorsese, DiCaprio plays Ernest skillfully as an uneducated, possibly developmentally challenged man. It’s unclear whether he’s damaged as a consequence of the war or if he was always somewhat slow, but he is often notably confused by some of Bill’s orders. That said: he’s definitely not oblivious to what is going on and is usually the conniving middle man in commissioning murders. De Niro, in his 10th Scorsese film, is especially chilling as the bloodthirsty puppet-master Hale. He’s beloved by the Osage people and often speaks their language fluently, all the while engineering the destruction of their culture. Mollie, a bright and calming presence at first falls ill with diabetes, a situation which Ernest slowly aggravates by administering poisoned insulin. Gladstone is assured and vulnerable as Mollie, a devastating counterpoint to DiCaprio’s grotesque Ernest.
There’s a remarkable sensitivity in the disintegration of Ernest and Mollie’s relationship. Ernest may be ruthless – he’s perhaps the most despicable character DiCaprio has ever played – but we feel his pain as he loses everything, just as we feel the pain of the Osage Nation as they have their way of life destroyed.
These days, Scorsese seems to exclusively make long films but this 206-minute epic is lengthy even by his standards. Thankfully Killers Of The Flower Moon earns its runtime, even if it lacks the pace of The Irishman (which is 210 minutes but feels like half of that). Each conversation between De Niro and DiCaprio is an exercise in clever euphemism and while some may find the tempo a bit too stately, the story of an entire people’s eradication deserves to be told in full. This is among Scorsese’s most important work.
Other things to note include an exceptional support cast, featuring Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow and Jesse Plemons as the Bureau agent who investigates the Osage murders, and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning camerawork. With deft skill, Prieto showcases the beauty of the open country while setting it against the moral ugliness of the townsfolk doing Bill’s evil bidding. Popular music from the 1920s, Native American songs and Robbie Robertson’s bluesy score help round off this remarkable Western, a film that will linger in the minds of its audience for a long time.
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro
- Release date: October 6 (in cinemas), TBC (on Apple TV+)