Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the mastermind behind classics such as Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, directs one of this year’s most stunning pictures, Killers of the Flower Moon. The epic-crime thriller has an all-star cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro, and is releasing in cinemas this coming Friday, 20th of October.
The film is set in the 1920s when the Osage people had become wealthy after gaining headrights for the profits from the oil deposits they discovered. It follows Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), who, after serving as a military cook in World War One, arrives at Osage County, Oklahoma, where his wealthy uncle, William Hale (De Niro), resides.
Hale announces himself as “King” and guides Ernest to marry Mollie (Gladstone), an Osage woman, for the oil money she will inherit from her family. King instructs Ernest to commit more and more crimes against Mollie’s family to guarantee the headrights, and eventually, Ernest has to face the consequences of his actions.
In his talk with Edgar Wright, which I had the pleasure to attend at the London Film Festival, Scorsese talked about how the film focuses on the “betrayal of trust”. It showcases how people are manipulated and hurt by people closest to them. DiCaprio and Gladstone masterfully portray the tension between the love and exploitation in Ernest and Mollie’s relationship.
DiCaprio is no stranger to working with Scorsese, and his turn as Ernest Burkhart might be one of the best performances of his career. In the beginning, Ernest is unaware of the evil in his actions, and his eyes have a certain sense of innocence. He is not inherently sinful, but King’s influence on him causes more and more violence in the Osage Nation.
A courtroom scene near the end of the film is reminiscent of the French New Wave film The 400 Blows (Truffaut, 1959), where Ernest is trapped in the centre frame and interrogated for his crimes. He presents all the struggles between being in love with Mollie and admitting what he did to her family.
Gladstone’s subdued performance as Mollie is no doubt one of the strong suits of the movie. She carries a lot on her shoulders, witnessing the tragedy happening around her again and again. There is a sense of helplessness that she embodies throughout the film.
Whereas De Niro’s bone-chilling performance is undoubtedly a highlight, he spills outrageous words casually while masking his evil and meticulous plans under his smiles and “righteousness”. It was a blessing witnessing the trio working together on screen.
Scorsese’s intensive research into the Osage people is apparent throughout the film. It is not purely the crime thriller that Scorsese is used to or what he originally intended the film to be. It transcends the genre and brings in a celebration of the Osage culture and history. It reveals the dark past Americans have been too afraid to admit to.
The slow revelation of the layers of the crimes and the horrifying nature of human greed and ignorance makes the film all the more intriguing. There is also an exploration into the characters’ masculinity, primarily how Ernest is characterised as the “dumb boy”. He has little thought of his own and is easily influenced by what his uncle says. He struggles to find a place in Osage County, and only through violence and exploiting his power as a white man does he gain his “masculinity”.
The film’s cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, is having quite a year. After capturing the Technicolor-esque extravagance in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, his camerawork in Scorsese’s epic brilliantly encapsulates the scale of the film, framing the environment and characters to perfection. Prieto’s use of shadows is something I would like to highlight. There is a shot where Mollie looks out her windows and sees shadow figures putting out a fire, and another where King talks to Blackie in front of a cinema screen. Those two uses of shadows are breathtaking – one creates scale, and the other adds to the secrecy and lurking evil.
Scorsese’s long-time collaborator and editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, cuts the film effortlessly. I was concerned when I stepped into the queue for the 206-minute film, as I did not have enough sleep the night before, and it was an 8 a.m. screening. However, there was not a single moment that I felt the film drag, and my eyes were wide open throughout the three and a half hours.
Schoonmaker and Scorsese completely woke me up with this film with the immaculate pacing. I’d also want to highlight the beginning sequence, where she cuts between the archival footage of the Osage people and other filmed elements. It sets up the scene and brings the audience up to speed with the history briskly.
The last sequence innovates the idea of merely presenting additional facts about the characters through words on a black screen, and it also features a perfectly placed cameo. More films should reference this mode of ending.
Killers of the Flower Moon releases in cinemas nationwide this Friday, the 20th of October. An IMAX preview screening is available at Vue Manchester Printworks on Thursday. Screenings at Vue Lancaster begin on Friday. The Dukes will be showing the film starting from the 8th of November. The student-run cinema on campus, Take 2 Cinema, will be showing it from the 1st to the 4th of December.