Few filmmakers have held up a mirror to our American society and wagged their fingers with such a splendid mix of righteousness and artistry as Martin Scorsese. His moralism has taken aim at all kinds of sinners, from mobsters (GOODFELLAS) to gamblers (CASINO) to stockbrokers (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET). His latest film is KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON and this time he’s indicting those who murdered numerous members of the Osage Indian tribe in order to procure their oil-rich land rights in 1920s Oklahoma. It’s a horrifying, true crime story that Scorsese brings to the screen with his usual expertise, though a few shortcomings do keep it from his greatest. Still, Scorsese’s emphasis on America’s predominate character flaw – greed – ensures that the lessons he’s doling out land profoundly.
The story begins with the Osage tribe discovering oil on their land and the windfall that comes with it. Most everyone in their closed society is now able to live high off the hog and soon, they’re rubbing shoulders with the established societal elites. But no sooner do they start enjoying the fancier things in life, from automobiles to tailor-made clothing to dining out, then a number of tribal members are discovered dead. Poisonings, shootings, beatings – so many crimes point to a conspiracy, yet nary a finger is lifted by the local authorities. If they were white folks, such a string of felonies would create an outrage, but with bigotry what it was in that era, the police and the white community all but turn a blind eye.
Enter Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) a WWI veteran taking up his rich uncle’s invitation to find work as an oil rigger for the Osage tribe. William King Hale (Robert DeNiro), one of the big wheels in town, is that wealthy relative, and his affable manner is a cover for all of the string-pulling he does behind the scenes, effectively running the town. Hale, or “King” as he insists everyone calls him, cajoles Ernest into taking a job driving around the young, single Mollie (Lily Gladstone) an Osage woman of wealth and means, instead of the back-breaking labor of working the fields. Before you know it Ernest and Mollie have fallen in love and are soon married. A couple of kids follow, juxtaposed against some of her family members dying. Despite Mollie’s worries as her kin perishes, Hale, Ernest and a few key locals diminish such concerns.
Setting all of this complex plotting involving not just a love story, but the crimes and the conspiracy is incredibly complicated at best. It requires establishing historical context, its Western setting, the pattern of America’s disgraceful treatment of the Indian population, and a sprawl of characters populating the town. There are few who can do such layered narratives as well as Scorsese, and here he corrals a ton of characters, builds exquisite tension, and raises the stakes demonstrably through the first half of his 3.5-hour opus.
But then, the filmmaker comes up short on a few key matters that start to mar the bigger picture through the rest of the movie. As great as DiCaprio here, playing a simple, uneducated man in over his head, there is simply way, way too much of him in the story. Same with DeNiro, despite giving a strong performance as a greedy man pretending to be a philanthropist. Gladstone’s Mollie is the most interesting character on screen – warm and caring, yet steely and intuitive – and yet Scorsese misses many opportunities to make more of her. For the better part of the second half, she’s relegated to bed rest as she takes ill, but it almost recesses her character. And Scorsese and his script with Eric Roth don’t bring any other Osage characters to the forefront around her.
Instead, the film becomes more and more about the relationship between Ernest and his uncle and how they manage the awful events occurring around them. Naturally, the mystery takes more center stage as the FBI steps into the picture, headed by a lead agent played by Jesse Plemons, one of our best character actors. But as we get to know the FBI crew, the Osage recede even further as characters.
It’s all the more ironic as Scorsese and DiCaprio have stated in interviews that they were drawn to the script because it told an incredibly true story, but that they wanted the screenplay to concentrate more on the Osage. And too many in the tribe that do have screen time are given only a single attribute to play. One is a vamp; one is a drunk – it’s two-dimensional writing and the greatest shortcoming of this otherwise sterling production.
The film still nobly tells an incredible story, one that people should know. Here, Scorsese has created his very first “western” and varies his style to match the stoicism of the Osage people, let alone the dryness of the Oklahoma surroundings. Scorsese does bring some showy flair, however, particularly in how he handles exposition via very clever newsreels in the beginning and through a vaudeville show at the denouement. He’s still masterful on so many levels, save for properly showcasing Osage characters. He may have gotten out of New York and Las Vegas, but there are still too many corrupt white men front and center in the story here. (Heck, DiCaprio’s visage is too dominant even on the poster.) KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is good, but it should’ve been great.