Screening at Cannes: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

"It’s a big gamble," Scorsese said of his epic three-and-a-half hour tragedy. "But we took a chance."

Jesse Plemons, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio at the 76th annual Cannes film festival at Palais des Festivals on May 21, 2023. Dominique Charriau/WireImage

Talk about a killer premiere: Martin Scorsese’s epic, shame-filled tragedy Killers of the Flower Moon had its world premiere in Cannes over the weekend, immediately igniting a stampede of rabid moviegoers and electrifying the Riviera film festival with its sprawling portrait of methodical, merciless mass murder in the open plains of 1920s Oklahoma.

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Scorsese, the legendary auteur and longtime Cannes vet who won the festival’s Palme d’Or in 1976 with Taxi Driver, last had a debut here with one of his shortest and least expensive films ever: 1985’s $10 million, 97-minute screwball nightmare After Hours (which also nabbed Cannes’ Best Director prize). What a difference four decades makes. Killers, a $200 million, 206-minute cinematic behemoth commanded a 9-minute standing ovation from the glittering gala crowd. Among the audience members were Cate Blanchett, Naomi Campbell, and Alfonso Cuaron, along with stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, and Jesse Plemons, as well as Apple CEO Tim Cook, the man whose trillion-dollar company bankrolled Scorsese’s vision. Bucking the trend of streamers like Netflix, Apple is partnering with Paramount to guarantee an initial theatrical release starting October 6.

“Apple did so great by us,” said Scorsese in a few quick remarks to the black-tie crowd after their thunderous applause. “We shot this a couple of year ago in Oklahoma. There was lots of grass—I’m a New Yorker, I was very surprised! It was an amazing experience.”

His version of David Grann’s acclaimed 2017 nonfiction book mostly hews to the harrowing contours of its deeply researched material. The Osage Nation, suddenly flush with unexpected oil money that made them the richest people per capita on the face of the earth, found themselves the obvious targets of festering racist resentment—and bore the brunt of a clumsily arrogant sense of white entitlement that led to one mysterious death after another among the tribe. “No Investigation” was the official government response, time and again, as more than 100 people systematically died under specious circumstances.

Courtesy of Apple

“Osage are the finest and the most beautiful people on earth,” smiles suspiciously avuncular cattle rancher William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro, delivering menace with almost comic glee). Hale has built a sturdy reputation as a benefactor to the Osage, fluent in their language and quick to defend their needs. But he’s just as quick to recoil from them in private. “They’re a sickly people,” he shrugs, as the bodies keep falling. And when his simpleton nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from The Great War, Hale enlists the still-traumatized, gut-busted doughboy in his grand master plan to redirect the flow of all that oil money—ideally through marriage vows.

“You like women?” Hale asks. “You like red?” Burkhart smiles shyly. “I like white, red, and blue,” he tells his uncle. It’s the first of the film’s many queasy indictments of the American way, where all those land-grab, pale-skinned European descendants sneer remarks like “fucking crazy squaw!” and “savages!” with impunity as the Osage, blessed and cursed with more wealth than they know how to spend, drive around in Studebakers and drench themselves in jewelry.

The film’s most radical departure from Grann’s true-crime tale is to turn it from a murder-mystery procedural to a pitch-black romance—a critical pivot that Scorsese credits with injecting the story with an essential shot of bleak emotional heartache. There’s no intrigue in the film; Scorsese makes it very clear who wants the Osage dead. “It’s not a whodunnit—it’s who-didn’t-do-it,” said Scorsese at a press conference the next day. And that kind of narrative needed a different approach. “Leo said, ‘Where’s the heart of the story?’ The story is in the character that is least written about: Ernest.”

Grann remarks in his book that few primary sources give much insight into Burkhart, aside from his marriage to oil scion Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and his complicity in Hale’s schemes. “And I said, ‘There’s the story,’” continued Scorsese. “Let’s create Ernest as an example, as a template for that tragedy of love, trust, and betrayal of the indigenous people.”

“What Marty does so well,” said Di Caprio, “is he’s able to expose the humanity of even some of the most twisted sinister characters you can ever imagine.” He added that Scorsese had him watch duplicitous Montgomery Clift performances in classics like The Heiress, A Place in the Sun, and Red River to get in that mindset. “It’s really a throwback to great epic films of the 1940s and at their center are these very twisted, bizarre love stories.”

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’ Courtesy of Apple

What makes that love story convincing is the fact that Burkhart doesn’t hide his intentions. “That money’s real nice,” he tells Mollie as they start courting. “Especially if you’re lazy like me.” And Mollie, ever clear-eyed with a chronic mournful streak that infuses her character, finds his candor refreshing—along with his dreamy blue eyes. “Coyote wants money,” she smiles at him in spite of herself.

She thinks she knows what she’s getting into, and Ernest truly feels like his attraction is genuine, despite continuing to aid and abet Hale’s low-simmering genocide against her tribe. “I think I really love her, uncle,” he tells an indifferent Hale, whose single-minded concern is locking up legal claims to all that wealth by any means necessary.

Scorsese’s big-swing cinema comes on the heels of his other leviathan, 2019’s 210-minute The Irishman. Together, that one-two punch, nearly seven hours in total, is an impressive output for any filmmaker, let alone an 80-year-old director. Why take such risks when he has nothing left to prove in his illustrious career? “As far as taking risks at this age—what else can I do?” he said with a laugh. “What’m I gonna do? I dunno,” he said, looking at De Niro and DiCaprio while gesturing at the press. ‘What do they want me to do? I don’t understand. Take a risk! ‘No, let’s do something comfortable.’ Are you kidding? You might as well be risking. You’re right, it’s a big gamble. But we took a chance.”

Screening at Cannes: Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’