Martin Scorsese’s Strengths Seem Wasted in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

In the end, I recommend seeing it, but I think 'Killers of the Flower Moon' is the kind of movie you respect and admire without much actual enjoyment.

Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’. Apple Original Films

Clocking in at close to four hours, Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s epic film about the evil massacre of the Osage Indians by greedy white racist capitalists in the 1920s, is unquestionably and impressively well made, but exhaustingly and unnecessarily too long for anyone with a bad back or a short attention span. As much as I admire Mr. Scorsese’s direction and screenplay, co-written with Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), I found myself glancing at my watch occasionally and dozing off quite often. 

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON ★★★ (3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Martin Scorsese & Eric Roth
Starring: Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser
Running time: 210 mins.

Based on the sprawling book by David Grann that took the author a decade to meticulously research and write, Killers of the Flower Moon chronicles the detailed minutiae of a massive criminal reign of terror that targeted one of the last five tribes in the Indian Nation that was given nothing by the U.S. government after the Civil War except a transfer of worthless land in the barren plains north of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But the Osage were not called “the chosen people of chance” for nothing. One by one, oil bubbled to the surface of their cracked soil, making them the wealthiest people per capita in the country. The jealous, resentful white men suddenly wanted their money, their land, and their oil wells—and the only way to get it was to marry into their families. Thus began one of the darkest chapters in American history, secretly suppressed and unreported by the press for a century. This is the saga that fascinates Mr. Scorsese here. It’s honorable to tell the story in so much minute-by-minute detail, but as a firm believer in brevity, I think the story could be told with the same impact in half the time.  

The film begins on a train bringing a man named Ernest Burkhart (a rapidly aging Leonardo Di Caprio) to the heartland after serving as a cook in the U.S. Army to work for his smarmy, politically ambitious uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), who wastes no time marrying off his nephew to a lonely but wealthy Osage woman named Molly (newcomer Lily Gladstone, who radiates, even when she has no dialogue). Then, her sister Anna is savagely murdered, and Ernest is trapped between two races trying to find the killers. The narrative makes a right turn to concentrate on Ernest’s dismissal of his wife’s doctors to control the insulin for his wife’s diabetes. Characters multiply, and so do the elaborate, long-winded, intricate and not always plausible subplots, including morticians covering up bullet wounds and doctors administering poison, while a multitude of actors in supporting cameos invade the Osages’ real estate, then marry and violently dispose of their women, one by one, for millions of profits. It’s down in marble as an accurate dossier on facts, but one thing that fails to make sense to me is why masses of people trusted Ernest Burkhart’s every action, although the character (at least the way he is played by Di Caprio) is a borderline moron, easily manipulated by his conniving uncle, without even the simplest capacity to make a convincing villain.

The movie eventually chugs its way into a final hour, with the action confined to the courtroom trial of Burkhart and Hall, with guest appearances by John Lithgow as their defense attorney and a bald and portly Brendan Fraser as the prosecutor. There’s a tedious dramatic payoff, but it’s an interminable, drawn-out time coming. This will come as sacrilege to many, but in my opinion, the obvious and well-cataloged strengths and skills of Marty Scorsese seem wasted. The exemplary camerawork does capture every flicker of a lighted cigar and each turn of a doorknob, but the director appears to be so in love with his own work that he can’t edit down or delete a single scene to eschew inescapable repetition. He can’t decide whether his movie wants to be a domestic drama, a rousing murder mystery, a pulse-racing action adventure, a political statement, or a tragic love story, so it settles on being everything at the same time. The suspense is minimal because we watch the plot to murder the Osage people unravel step by step and see the carnage as it occurs, scene by scene. Where’s the anxiety in that? The performances are solid (DeNiro and DiCaprio work together in a kind of movie shorthand), but only the triumphant Lily Gladstone manages to steal the picture from everyone else. 

In the end, I recommend seeing it, but I think Killers of the Flower Moon is the kind of movie you respect and admire without much actual enjoyment. With all the evident hard work, dedication and fidelity to facts, it’s still an hour too long and not a film I would ever want to see twice. 

Martin Scorsese’s Strengths Seem Wasted in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’