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In Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese Spills Blood and Oil on the Osage Hills: Review

The Pitch: The 1920s saw the end of an old nation and the beginning of a new one, as the Wild West and its frontiers gave way to the motorcar, the photograph, and the beginning of what whites would call “civilization.” But for the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, the discovery of deep, rich oil deposits on their land gave them unprecedented wealth and acted as a bulwark against the rapid erasure of their peoples and culture.

But with such riches come vultures hoping to take it for their own — see William Hale (Robert De Niro), the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills,” a wealthy white benefactor who conspired with others to take the land and “headrights” of rich Osage members. One such member is Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a headstrong, intellectual woman whose unmarried status opens up a rich opportunity to insinuate his family into their legacy.

Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple)

Enter his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dim blub recently returned from the war, whom Hale quickly conscripts into his scheme. It’s easy, after all; Ernest has as few scruples as he has good teeth, and it helps that he’s genuinely sweet on the future Mrs. Burkhart. And so it goes, as Mollie’s family (and other rich Osage) begin dropping like flies, and Ernest and Hale scheme to secure their misbegotten gains — with a stalwart FBI agent named Tom White (Jesse Plemons) slowly closing in on who’s responsible.

Can You Find the Wolves in This Picture? Based on the nonfiction book by David Grann detailing the Osage Indian Murders of the early 20th century, Killers of the Flower Moon is a true-crime story of native extermination filtered through the anachronistic, stylish, deeply thoughtful mind of Martin Scorsese. Co-writing the script with Eric Roth (Dune, Ali), Marty lays out his poisoned opus simply at first, then peels back each layer of its characters and setting until, like his central characters, there’s nothing left but the bitter truth.

From its opening scene — in which a group of Osage strike oil, dancing in slow motion around the vein as the bass and dirty harmonica of Robbie Robertson’s anachronistic score (his last for Scorsese, tragically) thumps around them — Killers of the Flower Moon commits itself to packing a lot into its gargantuan three and a half hour runtime. It’d be a lie to say that time passes by like nothing, but it’s certainly more fleet-footed than that number might imply. (Thank Scorsese’s greatest muse, the indelible Thelma Schoonmaker, for such brisk, clear editing.)

But where Grann’s book splits its time between the perpetrators of these murders and the FBI agent hot on their tail, Scorsese is far more interested in the moral calculus of the former than the straightforward procedural of the latter. Much like GoodFellas and Henry Hill, Scorsese centers his gaze on DiCaprio’s Burkhart, the dimwitted, eager-to-please protagonist who finds himself, almost without thinking, the center of a complex criminal enterprise.