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Review: "Killers of the Flower Moon" is so much movie, and not quite enough
Initial thoughts on Martin Scorsese's latest
Killers of the Flower Moon is a desperately hard movie to wrap one’s head around, and on some level that’s probably as it should be. The film made me feel sickened and angry, incandescently so, mostly in the ways I imagine Martin Scorsese and all involved intended. I wanted more of the Osage perspective and voice, even as I understand why Scorsese chose to tell this story from the perspective he did. In films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman, and more, he has always approached stories of terrible crimes through the eyes of those perpetrating them, and never been less than resolutely clear-eyed about the rot evil wrings on the human soul. By telling the story of the 1920s Osage murders through the eyes of Ernest Burkhart, a white man who married into an Osage family and actively helped destroy every member of it, Killers of the Flower Moon offers a thorough dismantling of the white savior myth, an answer to decades of ‘good white man’ movies like Dances With Wolves. Instead of imagining a mythical hero who never existed, whose only ‘real’ impact on the world is to make white people feel better about their history, Killers of the Flower Moon puts a very real white monster at its center, and by the end damns him in no uncertain terms. It is a film about the banality of evil, and powerfully so, and it is a necessary story for white Americans specifically to see and digest and come to terms with, because this evil is part of our heritage, and staring it in the face is absolute necessary.
And yet. I want the Osage version of this story. It is obvious Scorsese did this as respectfully and collaboratively as he could. I do not think you can doubt his sincerity or his commitment to hearing from and truly listening to diverse voices, from his work in global film preservation to the way he involved the Osage people here. That is commendable, and to be clear, I don’t think he crossed any untoward ethical lines here. If anything, the material we do get from the Osage characters and Native actors, which so many other filmmakers would have minimized and glossed over, just made me long for more of that perspective.
My favorite moments of this movie are the ones literally seen through Osage eyes – an owl flying through a window to visit a woman as she nears death, or that same woman seeing herself beckoned to the afterlife by her ancestors in a wordless matter-of-fact long shot. When Scorsese’s camera takes on their gaze, it believes in the reality of the Osage peoples’ lived experience so powerfully that it never stops to parse what is ‘real’ or ‘imagined.’ It just asks us to see what they see. I wanted more scenes like this, because in their quiet, overwhelming power, they dwarf everything else the film has to offer, no matter how good or thoughtful or incisive the surrounding material may be.
Lily Gladstone indeed gives the film’s best performance; the hype is absolutely to be believed, and the Oscar should be hers regardless of what category she submits in. But every Native actor here is astonishing, and when the film cues in on those characters, there is a lived-in naturalism and immediacy I found humbling. Behind the moments where we literally see through their eyes, the film is at its best when it simply plants its camera and listens to the Osage speak. I wondered at times if Scorsese might have been better served putting on his documentarian cap and simply recording stories and thoughts from the people he met working on the movie. The dramatized approach Scorsese takes is, again, very powerful; but there are stretches where I found the focus on white faces frustrating, not because the wrong message was bring imparted, but because these are not the people whose souls I cared to see illuminated in 200 minutes worth of depth.
Part of my ambivalence is that I simply do not like what Leonardo DiCaprio is doing here as Ernest Burkhart. So much of the cast, especially Gladstone and the other Native actors, are giving these deeply natural performances, low on affectation but high on humanity and impact, and DiCaprio is all affectation all the time. He is ‘Acting’ with a giant capital-A in every second he appears on screen; his performance is a lot, always pushed to the furthest extremes, in accent and voice and facial expression, and while it is sometimes effective – a long, unbroken take in a courtroom near the end of the movie is some of the best work DiCaprio has ever done on film – he just as often swallows up the movie around him. In an earlier version of this script, DiCaprio was set to play the FBI agent now played by Jesse Plemons, and as soon as Plemons appeared, I found myself wishing they’d swapped roles. Plemons would be perfect for Burkhart – this character who embodies the maddening hypocrisy of the colonial mindset, a man who claims to sincerely love his wife, and maybe even believes he does, while slowly killing her and her entire family. DiCaprio is putting far too many flourishes on what is such a fundamentally powerful, terrifyingly evil idea; based on his work in shows like Breaking Bad or Friday Night Lights, I could easily see Plemons doing it all much more quietly, but a lot more impactfully. Evil this horrifyingly banal should not be so overwhelmingly loud.
The whole film is, of course, incredibly well mounted. Every penny of the reported $200 million budget (and then some) is up on the screen, but never ostentatiously so. It feels like Scorsese’s camera has no limits on what can be shown, as though he and his crew walked through a time machine and filmed in Oklahoma a century past. The images captured here by Rodrigo Prieto are frequently some of Scorsese’s grandest and most awe-inspiring, but there are so many quiet interior compositions I found even more haunting and suggestive. Thelma Schoonmaker edits, as always, better than anyone in the business, wrangling 206 minutes and years’ worth of time with the seeming ease of a venerable master; nobody else can cut something as simple as a shot-reverse-shot conversation with such all-enveloping drama and intrigue. But my favorite artistic contribution here is the late, great Robbie Robertson, collaborating with Scorsese one last time, his earthy acoustic score thrumming through the movie like a heartbeat emanating from the land itself. As much as I want Lily Gladstone to win an Oscar, I would love to see Robertson get a posthumous nod for this. It is one of the great scores of recent times.
If there is one thing I feel confident saying, it is that Killers of the Flower Moon prompts an incredibly strong reaction. As well it should. I cannot imagine a person walking out unmoved, but I myself stood up after these 3.5 hours wanting more, mainly from the Osage perspective. This is a lot of movie, and still maybe not enough. This film is full of so, so much pain. I wanted to see more of it through the eyes of the people it was visited upon. That does not necessarily invalidate Scorsese’s approach, but it calls, almost desperately, for a response – for another film, with similar resources, told from the Osage perspective. Hollywood isn’t there yet, and that should prompt reflection from everyone in the industry as how to change the paradigm to make such a film possible.
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