Martin Scorsese reunites with his two frequent leading men, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, for his new epic saga, Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s yet another full-throttle crime thriller, but don’t expect the pace of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or the searing intensity of Raging Bull (1980). This film is also Scorsese’s Western, but yet again, don’t expect Leonardo and Robert tap engage in a cowboy duel, though they do exactly that but symbolically, via mind games.
It feels like a visual escapade to relocate the action from Scorsese’s home turf of New York to the countryside of Oklahoma. But Scorsese doesn’t only change the coordinates, but also brings a lived-in sense to the proceedings, from how the Osage community in 1910-20s did their weddings and funerals and went about their daily lives.
We get introduced to the land of the Osage through the eyes of an outsider, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo), and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s lens on the setting is glossy and touristy. But by the end, when we see an aerial shot of the Osage community dancing away in their colourful attires on their native music, we feel a sense of belonging, with a tinge of melancholy for the wiped-out remains, as if we knew one of them intimately.
Composer Robbie Robertson sporadically lets out the instantly familiar Western score, but the cowboyish element is married to a sense of foreboding: as if the white men are here for some good ol’ hat-doffing, horse-trotting, gun-wielding fun, without any inkling about what all that’s going to cost. Country music is used to set a timeline to the events, but also to serve as sumptuous and much-needed contrast to the bloodshed in the narrative.
However, the music can’t completely salvage the pace of the film. This film isn’t as gut-wrenching a slow burn as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021). Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is never loose, but struggles to encompass the vast screenplay co-written by Scorsese and Eric Roth. Killers of the Flower Moon is excellent piece of filmmaking for its runtime. Without that caveat, it’s just good.
Return of Scorsese’s muses
By now, one can see how much Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are at the same wavelength as Scorsese. They just get him. Leonardo sheds all his vanity, something that he brandished in The Wolf of Wall Street, to play a disoriented yet morally redeemable guy. His eyes reflect deep sorrow and pure frustration when he’s asked to pick a side by his uncle William Hale (Robert) between him and Ernest’s wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone). He hits the sweet spot between reverence and vengeance when he tells William, “My life is all regret.”
Speaking of William, Robert De Niro has a lot of fun with his part. From scaring off an Osage woman with his intimidating eyes while saying, “You don’t have to be scared,” to calling himself “as innocent as a newborn, maybe even more” after systematically eliminating a huge fraction of a community, Robert knows how to play the evil dressed in a three-piece suit.
Lily Gladstone is the discovery of this movie, as she dominates the first half with her spunk and screen presence. Once she starts languishing is when we feel a void – of what Lily, like her character Mollie, would’ve been capable of had she been nudged towards greatness. It feels empowering to see her break out of the cycle of torture in the end, that she’d been silently suspecting throughout the narrative.
Scorsese, thus, manages to make David Grann’s novel his own. His adaptation takes its sweet time to unfurl, inch by inch, yet it never feels indulgent or tokenistic. When the filmmaker pops up at the end to narrate the last page of the book, his moist eyes speak volumes of an epic painstakingly built and evocatively executed.