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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Killers of the Flower Moon': A Staggering, Haunting Epic from Martin Scorsese

There are few filmmakers currently working that have had as phenomenal of a run as Martin Scorsese has had over the past decade. Throughout the 2010s, he delivered a mind-bending mystery, a family-friendly ode to cinema, a tale of excess and corruption in the financial world, a powerful meditation on religious faith, and an elegiac gangster film. Throughout all these films, Scorsese has retained the same energy and style that flows throughout his entire filmography, but there is a greater sense of introspection and thoughtfulness in these later films compared to his earlier work. In addition to this, Scorsese realizes that he is getting older and that he doesn't have very many films left in him. As a result, you can feel that he is approaching every one of his films from the past several years as if it is his last. These films are massive in scope, and he truly gives them everything he's got. I personally felt like his previous film, 2019's The Irishman was the film he has been working towards his whole career, as it tackles so many of the themes and ideas he has wrestled with since his early days, and acts as an excellent encapsulation of him as a filmmaker.

Many filmmakers might stop after a film like this, but not Scorsese. Just when you think he has reached his peak as a filmmaker, he returns to deliver yet another stunning work of cinema. This is most definitely the case with his latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon. Based on David Grann's novel detailing the murders of several members of the Osage Native American tribe in the 1920s. One might think that Scorsese is a strange choice to tell a story like this, but he approaches it with a great amount of respect and sensitivity and allows the audience to feel the immensity of what the Osage refer to as the Reign of Terror. With its massive 3 hour and 26 minute runtime, it gives a detailed account of these events, and depicts both the devastation experienced by the Osage, and the wickedness of the men who perpetrated these crimes towards them. It is a challenging, tragic film that is as epic as it is intimate.

In the early 20th century, the Osage Nation discovered oil on their land. This made them some of the richest people in the world at that time, which attracted the attention of some of the local white men. These men schemed to take control over the money that the Osage were making from the oil, which eventually leads to the murders of several members of the Osage tribe. The murders become so severe that the FBI get involved, and they begin to investigate.

Scorsese is well known for his stylistic trademarks, namely his use of tracking shots, rock music, and voiceover narration. While this film does employ these in a way, it isn't nearly as showy as some of his other films. That said, this film still feels so grand in scope, and you can really see how he put his $200 million budget to good use. There is a straightforwardness to his direction of this film, which makes this one of his more grounded and restrained works to date. He has some flourishes here and there, of course, but much of the film focuses on the reality of what happened to the Osage during this time, as well as how these events affected them. Scorsese's approach is so deeply human and powerful, and while we do get some of his trademark stylistic flourishes, the film itself is such a mournful re-telling of a lesser known chapter of American history, and he allows much of the story being told to tell itself. His vision and gift for filmmaking certainly makes it all the more compelling, but he is fully aware that this is a story that needs to be heard, and treats it as such.

The concept of being complicit is felt all throughout Killers of the Flower Moon, and it is especially felt in Scorsese's method of telling the story of the Reign of Terror. There is a guilt to the way that the murders in the film are portrayed, and a palpable sadness that underlies the entire film. There are many ways that this could be viewed, as it feels like Scorsese is remorseful that this story was not told sooner, and that he is apologetic for having to include the murders at all. The white characters' complicity is quite obvious, as they are engaging in violence and deceit for their own personal gain, not thinking of the larger consequences in the slightest. It's Scorsese's introspection in his own complicity of what stories he tells and how he tells them that fascinates me, and gives the film a poignancy that intensifies everything we see on screen. This carries on throughout the film, and leads to a surprising ending that I won't spoil here. It's one of the most memorable parts of the film, and ends the film on a powerful note that has stuck with me long since I left the theater.

I can see how some might take issue with the story focusing more on the white characters than those who are Osage, but I must say that the film does do a great job of including them and their culture in the film. Scorsese went to great lengths to make sure that the portrayal of the Osage is authentic and respectful, as he brought on several Osage people to advise and consult on the film. I can't fully speak on what all he did or didn't do well in regards to their overall representation here, as I am not Osage myself, but at the very least, it is great to see Indigenous actors in a film of this scale, and I am glad that this story has the opportunity to be told to a wide audience. I would have liked to have seen more of the film unfold from the perspective of the Osage characters, but the film still gets the core facts and ideas it seeks to impart on the audience across. I do hope that more Indigenous actors and artists might get their chance to have their stories be told as a result of this film, as their voices deserve to be heard.

While Scorsese certainly deserves a lot of praise for how incredible this film is, I must give credit to some of his frequent collaborators, who put in some of their best work here. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography really stood out to me, specifically in how he moves the camera. He employs Scorsese's trademark tracking shots so well, and uses other movements to drive the film forward. The overall color grading is also solid, as it contributes to the grimness of the film, and plays into the interesting use of color in the film. Much of the film has a muted color palette, with small pops of color coming from the costuming and accessories that the Osage characters wear. It is an interesting touch, and fits within the context of the story that the film tells. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing is excellent as always, as she helps keep the film going at a nice pace, and some of the specific choices she makes give way to some of the film's most powerful moments. It's hard to discuss these without spoiling the film, but I'll just say that it wouldn't surprise me if she gets another Oscar for her work here. The score, from the late Robbie Robertson, blends traditional Native American instruments with a more of a rock influence, and it is so perfect for this film. The percussion and guitar are especially strong here, but the way the score almost prowls and heightens the tension in certain moments really blew me away. It is such an inventive score, and undoubtedly one of Robertson's best.

The film assembles a great ensemble, with the supporting cast in particular turning in phenomenal performances. Cara Jade Myers, Tantoo Cardinal, and Jillian Dion are all incredible, as are Jason Isbell, Pat Healy, Sturgill Simpson, and Scott Shepherd. Jesse Plemons gives a subtle, yet highly effective performance, and really pops in every scene he shows up in. On the other end of the spectrum, Brendan Fraser gives a BIG performance that is quite polarizing, but I think it kind of works in the context of his character and what Scorsese is going for in the scenes he appears. Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances in years, and is so dialed in to the role of W.K. Hale. He has a charismatic benevolence to him throughout much of the film, but it is how he lets the mask fall that really impressed me. He nails the complicated nature of the character, and it is one of the more lively performances I've seen from him in a while. Leonardo DiCaprio's work here is interesting, as he brings a pathetic energy to the role that works surprisingly well, especially in his scenes with Lily Gladstone. DiCaprio has this hangdog expression throughout the film which feels a bit forced and unnecessary, but the performance as a whole is fascinating, and allows him to use a bit of restraint compared to his typical showy acting style. The best performance of the film, however, is undoubtedly Lily Gladstone. Gladstone is an actor that I wasn't all that familiar with going into the film, but after this, I am all in on anything she does going forward. Her performance as Mollie Burkhart is beautifully understated, and she is the heart and soul of the whole film. Gladstone's presence is so magnetic, and the smallest actions from her send shockwaves throughout the scenes she's in. The character itself might not be the best written, but Gladstone takes what she's given and turns it into one of the year's best performances. She is phenomenal in this film, and I was completely floored by her work here.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a monumental film that is devastating, yet undeniably stunning. It is a captivating epic that held me for the entire runtime, and features Scorsese once again giving all he's got in the name of cinema. There are certainly discussions to be had on its portrayal of the Reign of Terror and the Osage in general, but as a whole, the film is an astonishing achievement on many levels. It is such a massive film in terms of its scope and how Scorsese approaches it, and it is an emotional gut-punch that will stay with you for days. This is such an astounding, haunting epic that ranks among the best films of the year (if not the decade), and continues Scorsese's impeccable track record as a director. It is challenging, for sure, but it is such a compelling chronicle of lesser known American history, and deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Rating: 5/5

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