‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is a harrowing look into America’s past

Martin Scorsese explores Oklahoma’s Osage Nation amid the “Reign of Terror.”


Lily Gladstone enters Martin Scorsese’s cinematic world of crime in “Killers of the Flower Moon” as Mollie Burkhart, starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart in his sixth Scorsese film to date. (Apple TV+)

It’s safe to say that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is one of, if not the most, anticipated film of 2023. The wait is over because Hollywood’s greatest working director, Martin Scorsese, returns to the big screen for a gut-wrenching tale of avarice, romance and mystery. As expected, he does not disappoint. How could he? Fifty-six years into his career, he can’t help but make a good movie.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is experienced through the perspective of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), an infantryman returning home from World War I who becomes a cab driver. Like his uncle, William “King of the Osage Hills” Hale (Robert DeNiro), Burkhart is viciously hungry for money and power. Hale is as evil as it gets, a devil in disguise who is literally praying on the downfall of the Osage people. DeNiro has played some sinister roles throughout his career, but because this is based on a real person, his performance is exceptionally bone-chilling and meticulously depraved. This marks the 10th film DeNiro and Scorsese have worked on together and the sixth collaboration between DiCaprio and Scorsese.

Across Scorsese’s illustrious filmography spanning more than half a century, he has developed an explosive cinematic language that explores humanity through the lens of greed, conspiracy, corruption, murder and betrayal. In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the plot follows the devastation plaguing the Osage Nation during the 1920s, where after striking oil and newfound riches, the Osage people are slowly being picked off by an unknown threat hiding in plain sight.

Lily Gladstone steals the show with her gripping and Oscar-worthy performance as Mollie Burkhart. In addition to falling in love with and marrying Ernest, she falls ill to diabetes and deep melancholy from losing her entire family to the mysterious uninvestigated deaths. When the bodies start to pile up, so do the tears, and the audience can feel Mollie’s anguish and dismay in every movement and sentence.

The entire ensemble cast has a dynamic range that only maestro Scorsese could orchestrate, including: Jesse Plemmons as Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White,  Brendan Fraser as Hale’s lawyer, John Lithgow as prosecutor Leaward, real extras from the Osage Nation and even a surprising appearance by musician Jack White.

On the surface, this film may seem like a typical Western crime flick, but it quickly diverges from the standard formula of depicting Native Americans as the bad guys. Instead, the film takes a more revisionist approach to the genre, delving into the implications of the Osage people’s suffering instead of the usual trope of white cowboys savagely slaughtering Native Americans with no repercussions. Don’t be fooled, this is still a Scorsese picture — there will be blood, and lots of it — but he crafts the unspeakable carnage to encourage audiences to recognize and reflect on the abhorrent realities and moral heft of the United States’ nationhood.

The movie is based on the 2017 novel by David Grann “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” Where the book highlights how the FBI helped find justice for the Osage people, Scorcese felt that the story focused too much on white men. So renowned screenwriter Eric Roth and Scorsese teamed up (with support from Osage principal chief Geoffrey Standing Bear) to transform the narrative into a “sober look at who we are as a culture.” Scorsese explained to Apple TV that he made the film “to do justice by the Osage so that the audience feels the immensity of the tragedy.”

Visually, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a cinematic feast for the audience’s eyes. Not only is the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto an impressive illumination of Oklahoman history, but it also encapsulates the coexistence of Catholic and Native cultures at the brink of American racial tension. Every frame of the film disappears into the ethnography of 1920s Oklahoma, from the production design to the authentic costuming, there is a superb attention to detail that offers an immersive and oftentimes devastating portal into the U.S.’ dark and twisted roots.

Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker crafts each performance with the same emotion and care that she’s done for the past five decades. Some may find the pacing a bit slow, but the decelerated tension allows the viewer to linger in the atmosphere and fully feel the cataclysm of the Osage murders.

Sadly, few directors working today are operating at Scorsese’s caliber. “Killers of the Flower Moon” feels like a special breed of cinema in danger of going extinct. Back in 2016, Scorsese proclaimed, “Cinema is gone, the cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.” Flashing forward to 2023, he is still at the forefront of saving an industry that has been currently undergoing reconstruction into the streaming era and evolving concerns with AI-generated productions.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a rare film in the current cinema landscape and a theatrical experience that is better to see with a live audience. However, the runtime is fatiguing. Coming in at a whopping 206 minutes (yes, that is approximately three hours and 27 minutes), this is a movie audiences must come prepared for.

This film is a crucial story told in a powerful way, that in true Scorsese fashion is challenging, honest and profoundly tragic. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is neither my favorite Scorsese film, nor his best, but perhaps his most important work to date.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” arrived in theaters Oct. 20 and will be released to Apple TV+ later this fall.

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