Martin Scorsese’s new kind of gangster masterpiece 2
Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro team up in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

Review: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is a new kind of Scorsese gangster masterpiece

Martin Scorsese is working on a monumental canvas here, and he splashes it with the vivid, universal colors of humanity — frailty, death, forgiveness, healing.
ANDREW PAREDES | Oct 17 2023

Martin Scorsese has called "Killers of the Flower Moon" his first Western, but make no mistake. This epic, sprawling tale of greed and betrayal still hews close to a Scorsese preoccupation: American gangsterism. But now it is a kind of gangsterism that is rarely confronted in a significant way: the colonial type of thuggery — an organized criminal effort by oppressive forces to steal from and butcher Indigenous peoples.

The Osage Nation called it the “Reign of Terror.” After being forcibly displaced and relocated to the Oklahoma territories, the tribe discovered oil under their seemingly barren lands in 1894. The Osage were not dumb, ensuring themselves ownership of the mineral rights, and became the richest people per capita on Earth. And then the terror came: In the 1920s, several members of the community began dying from a mysterious “wasting illness.” And when two Osage citizens were found within a day of each other, both dead from gunshot wounds, it seemed as if someone had taken the colonial tradition of genocide to an entirely personal level.

Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio)
Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio)

When Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth set out to adapt David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction bestseller, they initially tried to follow the book’s narrative track, focusing on Tom White, the FBI agent tasked by the Coolidge administration to solve the killings. But then Scorsese realized that following Grann’s parallel storytelling — the Osage murders and the FBI coming into its own as a law enforcement unit — would only end up lionizing an FBI agent (played by a stoic Jesse Plemmons, now only appearing in the final quarter of the film) who doesn’t deserve to be called a hero just because he was doing his job.

And so Scorsese and Roth switched tack, instead focusing on the Osage and one couple in particular: Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), whose family of fierce females owns one of the richest veins of oil in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), the white interloper sent in to woo Mollie by his wily cattle baron uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro) so they could have a share of the lucrative mineral rights by consanguinity.

Consanguinity is a literal concept in "Killers of the Flower Moon": Blood gushes like oil, and murder is portrayed bluntly. According to both the book and the film, Mollie and Ernest really did love each other, and that is where the film’s central tragedy lies: Ernest became a better man for having loved Mollie, but Mollie found no protection for having loved Ernest.

Robert De Niro plays William Hale, an American cattleman, and Jesse Plemons as Tom White, an FBI agent
Robert De Niro plays William Hale, an American cattleman, and Jesse Plemons as Tom White, an FBI agent

DiCaprio, his jaw disfigured by rotting teeth, offers up a man who is weak and lost, fresh from an unremarkable tour of duty in World War I, brow furrowed in concentration as if he is being asked to add two and two together all the time. That is Ernest’s default stance when his uncle sits him down at his den (kudos to veteran production designer Jack Fisk, who makes King Hale’s man cave both a mausoleum to dead game and a lair to predatory masculinity) so he can explain how things work in this corner of Oklahoma. Watch your liquor, or else you might indulge in “blackbird talk.” If you’re going to get in trouble, make it “big trouble.” And most tellingly, he proclaims with ersatz wisdom that the Osage Nation’s time is coming to an end: “This wealth will run dry. They’re a big-hearted people, but sickly.”

Hale also tells Ernest that the Osage are “the most beautiful people in the world” (before a feat of editing magic by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker abruptly cuts to a Native American man having a violent seizure on his bedroom floor as he chokes on poison), and that is really where Ernest’s fate is written: Before long, he wiggles a meet-cute with Mollie, who brooks no bison crap from Ernest. One whiff of this white man’s unctuous charm and she calls him out with a chuckle: “Coyote wants money.” But Ernest is too dumb and blinkered to know what to do with his devotion to this regal woman, especially when it collides with his familial loyalty to his rapacious uncle.

Lily Gladstone, Janae Collins, and Jillian Dion
Lily Gladstone, Janae Collins, and Jillian Dion

DiCaprio and De Niro get most of the showman scenes, but it is Gladstone who is the film’s center of gravity. Swathed in thick blankets festooned in vibrant Native American geometric prints, Gladstone anchors "Killers of the Flower Moon" in enigmatic earthiness. She is serene but not saintly, clear-eyed but also ill-advisedly hopeful, a figure of tragedy but also a portrait of courage. When the film dives into Mollie’s perspective — as she makes her way into town — the look of contempt in the eyes of the white townsfolk who part in her way is enough to suck the breath out of anyone with a weaker constitution. But Mollie stares straight ahead, as if looking at a future that she knows is already barreling towards her. It is those eyes that look at Ernest warily, then soften as she trusts in his goodness, only to watch that trust burnt to ash. In the process, we get to inhabit one of the most remarkable portrayals of a woman in any Scorsese picture.

Because that is what "Killers of the Flower Moon" invariably is: a Martin Scorsese picture. In his '80s, Scorsese has proven that he is still one of the most vital filmmakers working anywhere, able to tackle an intimate love story without sacrificing the depth and scope of its historical context; able to take 206 minutes and make them fly by in a blink; able to unflinchingly look at the ink-dark heart of man and yet still make our hearts break a little with hope and survival. 

"Killers of the Flower Moon" is a Western without a shootout; a mystery without a whodunit; a procedural that is really a love story tainted by greed and corruption and prejudice; and finally, a love story that cycles through cultural anthropology, black humor and courtroom drama. Scorsese is working on a monumental canvas here, and he splashes it with the vivid, universal colors of humanity — frailty, death, forgiveness, healing. 

"Killers of the Flower Moon" is — no matter how overused the word may be — a masterpiece.


"Killers of the Flower Moon" opens in cinemas on Wednesday, October 18.