When the Osage struck oil in Oklahoma, it seemed they would be the first tribe to gain real leverage against the federal government. Instead, all these instant riches simply brought a different form of destruction. In the years that followed this initial oil boom, a legion of lecherous, treacherous hyenas began to circle the Osage people, ready to feed in any way they could. Indigenous bodies began to turn up all over the plains. Untold treasure vanished into the ether. Unfortunately, nobody was particularly motivated to do anything about it.
This hideously familiar tale provides the backdrop for Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s sweeping, sprawling depiction of pure, undiluted evil. Based on David Grann’s bestselling book, Moon builds an epic tale from real events. As the film opens, the Osage people ruefully mourn the encroachment of the white man, and the subsequent assimilation of their culture. Their anguish is interrupted by the sudden spray of oil, simultaneously showering them with both blessing and curse. Soon, the Osage drive shiny Pierce roadsters and live in large houses. Best of all, members are assigned headrights, or quarterly, tax-free payments from the tribe’s mineral properties. (Of course, the government has to embed a humiliating insult into this windfall: Tribal members are deemed “incompetent,” and thus require a white guardian to manage their finances.)
Unsurprisingly, these headrights draw a carrion swarm, ready to loot these cash payouts for themselves. The balance of the film is presented from the pillager’s point of view: We meet Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dough boy fresh from WWI. He presents as a little grungy and not too bright. Luckily, Ernest has just the right connection: His uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro), is the crime boss for this particular stretch of Oklahoma tallgrass. Hale possesses just the right combination of grandfatherly twinkle and savvy ruthlessness to be a proper monster. He immediately gives Ernest a low-level job as a driver, with an opportunity for quick advancement.
One of Ernest’s first fares is Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). She’s full Osage, with three sisters and an ailing mother (Tantoo Cardinal). Ernest is immediately smitten, and Hale encourages the match. After all, marriage would bring those coveted headrights within the family’s reach. Underneath the transactional nature of their courtship, Ernest and Mollie share a strange attraction: He admires her headstrong sass, while she’s drawn to his ramshackle charm. (“I don’t like whiskey. I love whiskey,” he tells her.)
Their marriage sets off a murderous, Machiavellian spree, with those lucrative headrights up for grabs. Osage bodies pop up all over the countryside, most of them in suspicious circumstances. None of these obvious murders are thoroughly investigated, mainly because no one wants to get at the truth. Only a diligent FBI man (Jesse Plemons) seems interested in justice.
That’s all the plot I’d like to reveal. Part of the satisfaction of Moon is watching Scorsese unfurl a massive canvas and meticulously paint the finest details. This is a labyrinthine experience, replete with hundreds of speaking parts, spread over many years. It’s a testament to Scorsese (who co-writes with Oscar-winner Eric Roth) that this densely packed story even manages to be coherent, let alone gripping. Some viewers may complain about that long runtime, but every minute of Moon feels vital. In fact, the deliberate, winding nature of the story supplies much of its emotional heft. This is an immense tragedy, and it takes a slow-burn of a story to properly tell it. To whittle down Moon would be to peel away much of its power.
A good deal of that power also resides in its performances. Over his long career, DiCaprio has been such a brilliant chameleon that we probably take him for granted. We shouldn’t. Here, he vanishes into Ernest Burkhart, creating a man who alternates between odious, obtuse, likeable, and pathetic. This is some of his finest work. That compliment extends to DeNiro, who plays King Hale as a smiling, genteel variation of Lucifer incarnate. He is the most frightening stripe of villain out there: Savvy, savage, and completely comfortable with himself. Both actors should receive Oscar nominations.
Now for the crazy part: For all their skill, DiCaprio and DeNiro actually get outshined. Lily Gladstone will win an Oscar. I’ll just call it now. Her Mollie is indomitable, yet tender. Whip-smart, but painfully naive. Gladstone doesn’t just hold her own, she commands the screen. In a film with this much talent, that’s a huge accomplishment.
Also of note: The late Robbie Robertson’s pounding music, which greatly enhances the film’s atmosphere of mounting dread. Robertson loads the soundtrack with a throbbing bass line, snarling slide guitars, and hissing percussion. This will be the final collaboration between Robertson and Scorsese, and it’s a properly thunderous finish.
In the final analysis, Killers of the Flower Moon will stand proudly alongside Goodfellas and Casino as another of Martin Scorsese’s masterworks. In each of these films, the famed director shows us how greed, paranoia, warped loyalties, and fragile pride flow in the same brick-brown river, sweeping away everything in their path. This is one of these best films of the year.
206 min. R. In theaters.