Killers of the Flower Moon (Paramount/Apple Studios, R)

In many ways, Killers of the Flower Moon is a unique and surprising film in Martin Scorsese’s canon. While it certainly follows the kinds of low-life gangsters which the legendary director has shown an interest in for many decades, it’s a less showy film than many of his previous crime dramas, and for good reason. There is no redeeming the villains of this film, and Scorsese takes great care to reiterate this by regularly allowing his actors to dictate the pace of scenes rather than his camera.

That’s not to say that Killers isn’t beautiful to look at. However, if you’re worried about looking at a slowly, steadily paced film for three-and-a-half hours, you have every right to be worried. Scorsese clearly isn’t concerned with making this epic western everyone’s cup of tea, but if you approach it from a historical lens, I think it would be difficult not to have a rewarding experience.

We follow a series of real-life murders in Oklahoma, committed by a handful of greedy white men against members of the Osage Nation after oil was discovered on tribal land. After serving in World War 1, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to stay with his uncle, the seemingly magnanimous William King Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale essentially arranges a marriage between Ernest and young Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone) to bring the simple-minded and unsuspecting Ernest closer to the Osage people and deeper into a web of fraud, murder, and other criminal activity.

These three actors are dynamite in every scene, however my one glaring issue with the film overall is that Lily Gladstone isn’t given a whole lot of dialogue, despite being the key to the film’s emotional core. I think this was at least somewhat intentional on Scorsese’s part — an early scene suggests the Osage people are generally quiet but very intelligent behind their stoicism — but Gladstone is such a magnetic screen presence that I wish she had been given more to say.

In any event, the acting from the entire ensemble cast is mostly what carries the audience through this harrowing story. There are times when the film nicely teeters on a satirical take on these events, correctly showing the Osage as a rightfully proud, empathetic, and focused people, and the white criminals as arrogant, scheming, and oblivious to the point of personal oblivion. An early scene depicting a meeting about a potential response to the murders gripped me and rocked me to my core, as it cuts between the impassioned performance of Talee Redcorn as tribal leader Non-Hon-Zhin-Ga and that of De Niro as Hale, who just seems to be seething at the idea that any Osage could ever get close to discovering his true colors. It’s like an intellectual chess match between being genuine and being deceptive.

Killers of the Flower Moon, like most Scorsese epics, is very deeply rooted in a feeling of careful historical accuracy. The difference here is that the film is so patiently and deliberately paced that its moments of non-realism really stand out, but in the best way possible. Not only does the film have an eye to the roots of this kind of greed and racism, but in its relative flights of fancy, it has an eye to the future. It is asking us to emotionally exhume these dead and rightfully recognize them as fallen heroes of an American West that could have been — the West William Hale was selling to his devotees while repeating a horrible history of deception, domination, and colonization behind his facade. | George Napper

Killers of the Flower Moon is now in theaters everywhere and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ later this year

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