Martin Scorsese puts all his might into an infuriating true tale of greed

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Killers of the Flower Moon
Opens Friday 20
4 out of 5

Martin Scorsese is so skilled at directing he’s at the top of the class in two subgenres: The propulsive, nihilistic crime drama (GoodFellas, Cape Fear, Casino) and meditations on the soul; losing it (The Aviator, The Irishman) or getting it back (Silence, Kundun). I’m partial to the crime kind but certainly appreciate the second.

Killers of the Flower Moon belongs to the latter group and is the best of the bunch. It’s a ferocious indictment of unchecked capitalism without the patina of comedy of The Wolf of Wall Street.

The film is based on David Grann’s non-fiction book about a series of murders in Oklahoma in the early 1920s which led to the birth of the FBI. Following the discovery of large deposits of oil in Osage County, the local First Nation peoples were awarded the rights to profit from the discovery. It made them the richest people per capita on Earth.

This transformed the Osage peoples into targets for opportunists, swindlers, and thieves while the police turned a blind eye. Soon the Osage County became the murder capital of the U.S. This just months after the Tulsa Massacre, in which mobs of white supremacists attacked black residents and destroyed their homes and businesses. Oklahoma: not great for minorities.

Killers of the Flower Moon humanizes the story by zeroing in on Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone, Certain Women). Heir to a fortune alongside her three sisters and her mother (the legendary Tantoo Cardinal), Mollie witnesses members of her family die one by one in suspicious circumstances.

Unbeknownst to Mollie, her husband, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is implicated. A weak-willed war veteran, Ernest is manipulated by her uncle William Hale (Robert DeNiro) first into marrying into Mollie’s family and then, doing his bidding. Burkhart finds himself torn between his love for his wife and his greed, fostered by Hale.

Scorsese (who wrote the script alongside Oscar-winner Eric Roth) streamlined the story, leaving out dozens if not hundreds of homicides. Hale was emblematic of many perpetrators: Posing as an ally of the Indigenous community, the rancher engineered a plot to get hold of their fortune, whether through targeted killings or by establishing himself as the beneficiary of their life insurance policies. We’re not talking about a master criminal here: he was brazen and careless, operating under the assumption the law didn’t care. And Hale was almost right.

The film features many industry veterans at the top of their game. DiCaprio and DeNiro are never better than under Scorsese’s command. Leo in particular is excellent as the pathetic antihero. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (who also shot Barbie this year), legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and the late composer Robbie Robertson help elevate the film to instant classic status. Every penny of the $200 million budget is on screen.

Unlike Scorsese’s recent three-and-a-half-hour portrait of moral corrosion — the unengaging The Irishman Killers of the Flower Moon is fascinating from the start and throughout. Even exposition scenes become juicier, like the epilogue: while lesser filmmakers use title cards, Marty turns it into a radio play.

If there’s a flaw, it’s the movie’s coolness. Scorsese is a powerhouse in nearly every aspect of the moviemaking process, but even when covering this truly appalling episode in American history, he doesn’t tug your heartstrings. A story like Killers of the Flower Moon shouldn’t leave viewers cold. It’s cold enough. ■