You can’t say Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese has bad instincts.
The “Taxi Driver” auteur knew on a gut level that David Grann’s nonfiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon” could resonate with movie audiences. The shocking tale of greed, bigotry and corruption that left many members of Osage Nation dead in the early 20th century is both fascinating and infuriating.
Add Scorsese’s muses, past and present (Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro), and you’ve got the definition of Oscar-bait cinema. Should “Killers” clean up during awards season it’ll be due more to the director’s loyal base than the film, a maddening affair with one clear takeaway.
Noble intentions do not a good movie make.
A clever prologue reveals how the Osage Nation became wealthy beyond measure in the 1920s when oil bubbled up on its land.
Before you can say, “Texas Tea,” greedy white men swarm the community, eager to get their share of the riches.
That includes DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a simple soul trying to re-enter society after serving his country in World War I. He wouldn’t mind some extra spending cash, thank you kindly, but he quickly falls for an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone).
Ernest’s uncle, William King Hale (De Niro) nudges him in her direction. It’s just what he does. He’s connected to everyone and every player in the region, and his avuncular mien has the locals fooled.
He’s the rare “good” white man, not one of many eager to exploit them.
That’s no spoiler. It’s clear from the beginning this King has ulterior motives. It’s just as obvious that Ernest has a simple mind and a genuine love for Mollie. That doesn’t square with what we see over what feels like a Harry Potter movie marathon.
Really, Marty? Must “Killers of the Flower Moon” run for three hours and 26 minutes? You’re a legend, full stop, but does the term “kill your darlings” mean anything to you?
“Avengers: Endgame” better justified its three-hour running time.
“Killers” offers ripe supporting players, on paper, but few of them leave an emotional mark. The most disappointing example?
The great Jesse Plemons arrives mid-movie as the Bureau of Investigations agent seeking the truth behind the unsolved Osage deaths. Finally.
- Will he uncover the tapestry of lies engulfing Osage Nation?
- Will he go toe-to-toe with the King, a battle to avenge those killed over the years?
- Or, will “Killers of the Flower Moon” fall apart in its final hour, reliving obvious story beats without the energy or rage the story demands?
Sadly, the answer is, “C.”
This isn’t a mystery, nor does the screenplay (by Scorsese and Eric Roth) distract us from secrets revealed later on. We know the heroes and villains without much sleuthing. That leaves us waiting for the inevitable, and the stakes drain away with every scene.
Gladstone handles her role with grace, but her character’s illness keeps her on the dramatic sidelines.
Scorsese infamously scrapped an early “Killers” draft focusing on the FBI’s point of view. That’s wise, but what replaced that perspective hardly helps. The main Osage character in the film remains Mollie, and she barely registers for much of the story.
We don’t get to know other members of her family beyond a scene or two. “Killers” may be the anti-white savior film, but that doesn’t mean the Osage culture gets a meaty closeup.
With #KillersoftheFlowerMoon, Martin Scorsese and his team received an extensive education in Osage traditions.
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— /Film (@slashfilm) October 18, 2023
Even worse? The few sequences showcasing their sense of community hardly play to Scorsese’s screenwriting strengths. It’s not woke, just obvious in its storytelling tics.
That leaves us to marvel at DiCaprio and De Niro’s on-screen chemistry, but even this turbulent team leaves us frustrated.
Is Ernest a lousy match for a grand manipulator like the King? Doesn’t his soul ache for the increasing body count in his wife’s extended brood?
It doesn’t take much tinkering with the story to imagine far more compelling narratives bubbling up from the source material. The tale’s fact-based narrative may have tied the filmmaker’s hands, but some creative license could have dissolved that knot.
The supporting elements, as expected, fall expertly into place. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the grit and uncertainty of Oklahoma circa the 1920s, and Robbie Robertson’s score offers a ripe departure from previous Scorsese joints.
We get flashes of violence, as ugly as you anticipate from the “Goodfellas” director, but with a welcome splash of restraint.
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Performances are strong across the board, with DiCaprio capturing another flawed man trying to make sense of his surroundings. It’s still an incomplete portrait, a cinematic sin given the actor’s gifts and the screen time in play.
Had Ernest been struck a mighty blow to the head in the first act it all might make more sense.
Showy cameos by John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser, appearing during the brief courtroom sequences, feel tacked on and inconsequential. Look, Ma … I’m in a Scorsese film!
At 80, Scorsese remains a vital storyteller willing to tackle complicated tales that deserve a closeup. If “Killers” does nothing but educate the public on a horrific, extended crime it’s a worthy effort.
As a possible Best Picture candidate? It’s wildly overmatched.
HiT or Miss: “Killers of the Flower Moon” is far from a bad film, but it stands as the year’s biggest disappointment.