As the world’s preeminent content creator of Online Discourse—TikTok videos with his daughter, ironic “This is Cinema” tweets—it’s good to be reminded now and then that, oh right, Martin Scorsese sure can direct one hell of a motion picture. Memefication of Marty aside, the director is currently bobbing along happily on one of the most virtuosic upticks in his long and legendary career following The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, and The Irishman. And now here he comes with Killers of the Flower Moon, his tremendous adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 true-crime book about a spate of murders that rocked the Osage people in the 1920s, which might just represent the high water mark. Until the next one, anyway. Eight decades of living seems to have only enlivened the man, and we’re all his beneficiaries.
Look no further than Flower Moon’s opening passage, which translates such a wealth of historical information into pulsingly expeditious cinematic poetry that it’ll spin your head right around and back again. A council of Osage tribal members are performing the ritual burial of a peace pipe in order to put the past behind them, as they’ve been forced off of their own lands. But before they can even pat the dirt down there’s a spray of oil spurting up out of it, and Beverly-Hillbillies-style the downtrodden Osage are suddenly per capita the richest people on the planet, as the land nobody wanted that they were forced onto turns out to be rich with black gold.
And the Osage like to live large (as would we all), and so up around them explodes fresh commerce to go with the derricks, which translates into white people to chauffeur them and feed them and to sell them cars and furs and jewels (so many jewels). And also, per usual, it brings white people to glare at them with sinister plotting, cold and spiteful behind their eyes. But Scorsese understands the impulse to stare—the visual inversion that the wealthy indigenous person with caucasian servants represents is not a scene we’ve been much privy to on our movie screens. And the factual history of that was no doubt a part of what drew him to the telling of this surprising tale, a chapter conspicuously absent from our cultural textbooks.
Enter Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a misshapen-toothed dolt fresh out of WWI service (he was a cook with a bad gut) now looking for easy money—a search which has led him straight to his uncle, one William Hale (Robert De Niro), a smirking owl-eyed devil who prefers it if his nephew just calls him “King.” And almost immediately, as in fifteen seconds into their first conversation, Hale is suspiciously interested in Ernest’s venereal disease history and sexual peccadilloes—an odd enough subject to dive straight into with your relative that one would think Ernest would have some alarm bells going off. But Dicaprio and Scorsese take this opportunity to show us right up front that if Ernest even has any alarm bells they were disarmed a long time ago. He just smiles his big brownish smile and says yessir right in the direction of the money.
So Hale steers Ernest, with such disquieting ease that the pancake-faced boy-man doesn’t even notice, toward a local Osage heiress named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). And Mollie, despite her reserved nature and her full awareness of what Ernest is looking for, finds herself charmed by him all the same. And aye the rub he in return does seem genuinely besotted. The sly and palpable chemistry between the two actors is marvelous enough to help us make the leap in the audience right along with them, even though we, like Mollie, are fully cognizant of Ernest’s lower instincts. We all find ourselves firmly attached to the hope, logic be damned, that love, that wily bastard, might overcome all.
But unfortunately for them, and us, and especially the Osage people, this is a Great American Tragedy of the slow-motion sort. And that’s not intended as a snide nod toward Flower Moon’s run-time, stretching as it does languorously out across three and a half deliciously full hours. Not a minute of that feels wasted—even when the film is taking its generous roundabout time. There are rises and falls, propulsively-speaking, in the action—the pacing isn’t all thrusts. Scorsese steeps us in this time and and this place and he lets us soak until it’s deep in our bones. And then when the time comes to stab us repeatedly in the ribs he does that too, and with the ninja precision of a master. (A master named Thelma Schoonmaker that is, our editor queen and overlord.)
Similarly, Lily Gladstone’s performance—brilliant, exquisite—is pulled way back in too. But far from remaining a question mark, Mollie seems more an interiorized oasis of calm. On their first date she insists, with a kind smile, that Ernest put down the bottle of whiskey and listen to the storm outside, and so they do, and we do, and we’re all the better for it. It’s not hard to get ecstatically lost in that peaceful rhythm. That said, one could imagine the same criticisms being leveled toward Mollie’s still nature as were (wrongly, in my opinion) aimed at Anna Paquin’s silent witness in The Irishman. But to my eye Martin Scorsese, a man who’s forever been frantically running ten miles behind the words flying out of his mouth, is only once again betraying his bottomless fascination with introverts—with silence. (He named a whole movie that, after all.)
Late in the film, as the relationship between Ernest and Mollie has devolved into a parasitic nightmare that neither of them can get out of, Scorsese gifts us with one of the most haunting passages of film he’s ever directed, all reliant on its hallucinogenic molasses-slow pace. Mollie, wasting away in bed with sickness as half her family has also done “mysteriously” before her, the windows flicker with some strange fire outside. Like something projected in from the hellscape of the 1960 Japanese horror film Jigoku (a reference Scorsese would no doubt have ten minutes to expound upon on command) the silhouettes of men shimmer within the flames, all as slick with sweat Molly moans and a dead drunk Ernest watches on. Time in this terrible moment seems to stretch unto infinity.
And there is only one way you get to landing a moment this evocative and emotionally affecting, where a relationship we’ve lived in can be abstracted out to silent theatrical excess and still tell us all we need to know, and that’s by taking your damn time. A whirlwind of characters and scenarios swirl around these two—Molly’s extended family and community and Ernest’s side-show parade of vagabond bastards picking their bones clean—but Scorsese smartly drops this traumatized couple, emblematic of it all, at the center of the storm. And they leave you aching, shaking with anger and regret—at one point Ernest says regret is all he has left and Scorsese makes us understand that singular truth so profoundly that we’re all implicated. We are regret manifest.
Which isn’t to say that Killers of the Flower Moon is a three-plus-hour dirge of death and misery (although that should be exactly what weighs on your heart by its end)—Scorsese’s camera and storytelling prowess couldn’t wallow if it tried. The world he’s built here thrums with life—a lot of it horrific, but all of it deeply intoxicating nonetheless. Take for example De Niro, giving his greatest performance in decades, as a smiling viper dropped down in the Osage people’s midst—while it’s technically the sort of gangster role that the actor has done for Scorsese a dozen times already, it actually feels closer in practice to the whispering nastiness of The Age of Innocence. To paraphrase Norman Bates, Hale clucks his thick tongue and shakes his head and suggests ever so lightly. Which in this case means that an entire people’s day of extermination is just, you know, there. Just happening.
It’s an entirely novel approach to villany from these two cinematic experts in the form, and it rattles the neighborhood like two tons of dynamite. A coyote in sheep’s clothing, Hale makes a big show out of his friendship with the Osage people—he speaks their language as well as they do, and he understands their customs just well enough to manipulate them to his own means. It’s a deeply unsettling portrait of the call coming from inside the house, one that calls to mind (and surely pointedly) the self-proclaimed liberals who suddenly swung Trump-ward—the way those with privilege and power can insinuate themselves into small fissures until the base cracks wide open, cannibalizing whatever remains. Hardly a modern phenomenon, but one we can see on the evening news every night all the same.
And Scorsese doesn’t let himself off the hook either, ending the film with a profoundly moving note of self-recrimination—with a swivel so deft you won’t know what’s hit you, he manages to implicate the entire Hollywood system in its erasure of Indigenous and marginalized stories and truths, and somehow further still personalizes this down to one man’s devastating mea culpa. That that one man just happens to be the foremost American filmmaker of his generation, and that he is wrestling with ideas and emotions this complex and confounding here into his eighth decade, is Scorsese’s gift to us all. And we’re smart to let him speak for us, and to follow his lead. So temporarily set aside the TikToks and let Uncle Marty show the way!