The Movie Waffler New to VOD - KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON | The Movie Waffler


A cattle rancher instigates a murderous campaign to steal the oil rich land of 1920s Oklahoma's Osage people.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd

Killers of the Flower Moon poster

Perhaps the most shocking moment in mainstream American cinema comes in Phil Karlson's 1955 thriller The Phenix City Story. In an attempt to warn off the film's hero, a bunch of mobsters abduct the young daughter of his black neighbours. Later a car drives by and the child's dead body is dumped on her family's lawn. Aside from the obvious horror of the murder of a child, what's most disturbing about this scene is how in the eyes of the mobsters a black child's murder is considered lowly enough to serve merely as a warning; it might as well be a dog they've taken and killed.

There are several moments in Martin Scorsese's true crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon that echo this scene, though none have the same visceral power. Here we see white men kill indigenous Americans in the same casual manner. Unlike his gangster movies, where bad men generally only kill other bad men, Scorsese doesn't make set-pieces out of these killings. There's a swiftness to their brutality, and they're often carried out like errands by men eager to get a dirty deed out of the way before they go drinking or gambling, who react to being ordered to kill like a teenage boy whose mother has asked to bring the bins in. At one point we see an unconscious drunk indigenous man's body lie on the floor while two white men openly discuss their plan to kill him for an insurance payout.

Killers of the Flower Moon review

Karlson made several movies about the evil that infects American towns once they become prosperous, and Scorsese's film plays like one of those pictures on an epic scale. The newly minted town here is Fairfax, Oklahoma, which in the early 20th century made its native Osage people some of the richest folk in the world when they ironically struck oil on what the white man assumed was useless land. The Osage's newfound wealth attracted opportunists and vultures, but their biggest enemy was hidden within their community. William "King" Hale was a local cattle rancher and self-professed friend to the Osage. He was also responsible for killing them off in numbers that practically equated to genocide, so determined was he to control their riches.

Hale is played here by Robert De Niro, an Italian/Irish-American actor who began his career looking like a handsome Italian peasant and appears to be ending it resembling a mutton-headed Irish farmer. Legend has it he stopped being good at some point in the mid-90s, but his recent revival with Scorsese suggests it might have just been the pictures that got small. De Niro is magnetic here, simultaneously charming and terrifying, like every young boy's grandfather. We might ask why the Osage would trust him – isn't he clearly a wrong 'un? But we have to remind ourselves that the Osage don't realise he's Robert De Niro. Scorsese cleverly uses De Niro's screen history against Hale. When we see him receiving a shave we immediately think of his Al Capone in The Untouchables, but the Osage haven't seen De Palma's film. To them he's their benevolent white friend.

When Hale's nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), arrives in Fairfax looking to make a quick buck and a quick Buick, the Iago-esque Hale begins pulling strings. Ernest is assigned as driver to a young Osage woman, Molly (Lily Galdstone), in the hopes that he can charm his way into her hand in marriage. Meanwhile Ernest is performing a series of petty crimes with some no-good friends, which doesn't sit well with Hale, who prefers to play the long game of eventually getting power over Molly's estate.

Killers of the Flower Moon review

The romance between Ernest and Molly borrows liberally from Hitchcock's Suspicion. Like Joan Fontaine (or Lorraine Bracco in Scorsese's own Goodfellas), Molly suspects the man she loves is up to no good (she constantly refers to Ernest as a "coyote"), but marries him regardless. Soon after their wedding, Molly succumbs to debilitating diabetes. Her wealth allows her to become one of only five people in the world to receive insulin at the time, which her dutiful husband insists on administering himself. Like the milk Cary Grant brings to Fontaine in Hitchcock's film, its poisonous nature is left ambiguous.

We've become accustomed to DiCaprio recently favouring the sort of roles that require him to act as though he's nursing a permanent ulcer, but when Molly speaks in no uncertain terms about how attracted she is to the roguish Ernest, we're reminded that DiCaprio is indeed a matinee idol. The character of Ernest might be seen as a comment on the idea that movie stars can be cursed by their looks. Like Rob Lowe in Bob Swaim's Masquerade, DiCaprio's Ernest is chosen to perform a despicable task because of his sex appeal, but the tragic irony is that Molly would have fallen for Ernest without Hale's machinations, and the pair may have lived happily ever after.

Killers of the Flower Moon review

At close to 3.5 hours, Killers of the Flower Moon never fails to justify its running time. It moves rapidly from one devious scheme to another, all the while propelled by a Ry Cooder-esque score by the late Robbie Robertson that ticks away like a malevolent metronome. Is it disturbing? Yes. This is a story of evil men and how their inability to view people who don't look like them as equals allows them to gun them down like rabbits. But it's also a Scorsese crime drama, which means it's highly entertaining.

This is something Scorsese seems to wrestle with throughout the film. As mentioned, the killings are presented in the most blunt fashion possible as Scorsese strives to avoid any sensationalism. In a coda that takes us inside a theatre where a 1940s radio programme about the Osage murders is being broadcast live, Scorsese literally gives himself the last word as he reads Molly Burkart's obituary, the director struggling to suppress his emotions. What's also shocking about the aforementioned scene in The Phenix City Story isn't just that the movie's villains viewed a little black girl's life as having less value than that of a white child, but that the filmmakers knew the audience shared the same sentiment. Killing a white child would have marked the point of no return, but killing a black child left room for escalation in the minds of 1950s American cinemagoers. There's no such room for escalation in Killers of the Flower Moon. The deaths of the Osage don't serve as a warning to any heroic white figures, but to us all at a time when the western world seems intent on judging the value of victims of conflict by the colour of their skin.

Killers of the Flower Moon
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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