But the gamble nevertheless results in a buzz; taking you back to the grand epics of old, minus the classical overtures and interludes. Even more so when it's a three-and-a-half-hour project directed and co-written by maestro filmmaker Martin Scorsese, one of a small number you can trust to create a decent long movie. Killers of the Flower Moon weaves a spacious, immersive world of wealthy Native Americans, greedy white men and quiet genocide that eats those hours away.
Admittedly, 206 minutes is too much and Scorsese’s lifetime editor Thelma Schoonmaker is strangely reluctant to trim the film around the edges. At the same time, the characters – deplorable and innocent – hold you by the collar and lift you to inescapable heights.
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio as Bill Hale and Ernest. Photo: Apple
Scorsese once again dives into the dark side of his country, in a genre that he hasn’t covered before: the Western. Or that’s the first impression, with shots sometimes resembling those in Sergio Leone’s 1968 classic Once Upon A Time in the West. But this is a true-crime drama through and through, set in 1920s Oklahoma as the Osage Nation people strike oil and become affluent figures.
It’s an arresting switch of power dynamic: the white Americans dropping their hats, almost in servitude, for help and money from the Osage. Predictably, the former find ways to ruin that system via the cattle rancher Bill Hale (a smilingly nefarious Robert De Niro) and his army veteran nephew Ernest (a vividly dumb and money-hungry Leonardo DiCaprio). After Ernest’s arrival into the community, he strikes up a relationship with the stern Osage woman Mollie (a career-making turn for Lily Gladstone) as part of a plan to absorb her wealth.
Although Scorsese is known for his accelerated storytelling and reverence for blood, recently he’s matured into a more considered style. Killers of the Flower Moon proceeds at a curiously gradual pace, observing the hushed gangster politics that facilitate the Osage murders. It’s like the anti-Goodfellas: at slow speed with deliberately understylised violence. The deaths are bluntly executed, capturing the unnerving banality of evil in which Bill and Ernest operate. Worse still: the men responsible clearly don’t see the evil in what they're doing.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone as Ernest and Mollie. Photo: Apple
Once the murders escalate to explosions, Mollie and the Osage people beg for outside help – leading to a visit from proto-FBI officer Tom White (Jesse Plemons). The original script was written from White’s point of view, but years of rewrites with co-scribe Eric Roth shifted that perspective to prioritise the community instead.
Although the Indigenous struggle is elevated (Scorsese engaged in heavy consultations with the present-day Osage), the film is more concerned with the killers than the killed. Ernest turns into a weirdly nuanced character, who compartmentalises his seemingly happy marriage to Mollie and the violence he facilitates against her people. In turn, Mollie grows more fascinating than Ernest.
However, the sordid avarice of morally bankrupt men is a dark and familiar playground for the director. He provides a decent balance of sympathising with the Osage and examining their oppressors without glamorising the latter.
Although Killers of the Flower Moon is too long, the lethal and duplicitous experience makes for an addictive time at the movies. Even if you decide to wait a few weeks for its eventual release on Apple TV+, it’d be a crime not to watch all of it in one go.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2023. Killers of the Flower Moon will be in UK cinemas on Friday 20 October.
|What||Killers of the Flower Moon movie review|
20 Oct 23 – 20 Oct 24, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
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