On the surface, “Killers of the Flower Moon” isn’t like most Martin Scorsese films.
The time isn’t now, or the recent past, but a century ago. The place isn’t urban, but rural. And there isn’t an Italian-American, Sunday spaghetti dinner or Rolling Stones song to be found.
Yet in a way, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is like every Martin Scorsese film.
As in his least “typical” movies — “Silence,” “Kundun,” “The Age of Innocence,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” — it dives deep into a culture completely alien to him. As in most of his work, it deals with the corrupting influences of envy and greed, and the nagging pull of guilt and shame.
While, as in some of his greatest works, it details the slow-motion horror of a man losing his humanity, one piece at a time.
Based on the 2017 nonfiction book by David Grann, “Killers of the Flower Moon” (which opens Oct. 20) is set largely in rural, 1920s Oklahoma. There, chased out of nearly everywhere else by a genocidal government, the indigenous people of the Osage Nation have finally found a dusty, windswept refuge.
Until they discover that the land nobody else wanted sits atop something everybody wants — oil.
The film shows what came next — and it’s surprising only in its extraordinary cold-bloodedness. Within five years, five dozen members of the Osage Nation will be shot, poisoned or blown to bits while their white neighbors take over their mineral rights and grow richer and richer. And local authorities not only refuse to investigate, but cooperate in the crimes.
It’s a story Scorsese wanted to tell, but it took him a while to figure out how. At first it was going to be from the point of view of a heroic government agent. Until Scorsese realized that would be just another pat, well-intentioned movie about a white savior. He needed, he realized, to move the camera — the entire movie — 180 degrees.
And so the focus became, not the white lawman, but the Indigenous people. And Leonardo DiCaprio, who had first signed to play the hero, now took a new role as one of the villains.
It’s a tricky thing, telling another people’s story, and Scorsese is fully aware of it. And acknowledges it in a pair of bookending scenes.
In the film’s first sequence, and the last, we see the members of the Osage Nation together, and apart from whites. They hold solemn rituals of mourning. They come together in a traditional dance. They make it clear they are aware of what they are about to lose — and, later, what they have held onto.
But there are separate, secondary beginning and ending sequences. In the first, we see the members of the Osage Nation as the whites see them, old newsreels sketching the story of the Native Americans’ new riches and mocking their nouveau-riche tastes. In the second, a radio program turns their tragedy into popular entertainment.
Scorsese and script co-writer Eric Roth literally give the Osage Nation the first and last words. But the movie’s dual framing acknowledges that much of what white America thinks it knows about people of color is what it has told itself. And even when it has all the facts, it rarely sees the entire picture.
The film gets off to a somewhat bumpy start. The necessary but complicated backstory of the oil rights is somewhat glided over. (There will be other confusing spots later, particularly as the films gets crowded with relatives and vague relationships.) And while we don’t, thank heavens, have any of the CGI “de-aging” we had in Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” it’s initially hard to accept DiCaprio, 48, as Ernest, a young man freshly mustered out of the Army.
But then he arrives at his destination, an Oklahoma boomtown of saloons and billiard parlors and gun-toting cowboys, and gets a ride out to his rich Uncle William’s place. And the movie takes off.
Ernest is the sort of nonentity one of Scorsese’s goodfellas would have dismissed as “an average nobody.” He served his country in the Great War, sure — but as a cook. He came home injured, yes — but only with a hernia. He has few skills, little ambition, and no apparent future. He is made to be used — and his Uncle soon sees just the way to use him: To marry Mollie, the smart, steady center of a large and wealthy Osage Nation family.
Then, all Ernest has to do is sit back and wait — as Uncle William makes sure that the rest of Mollie’s family meets untimely deaths, and all that oil money goes to Mollie. And then, to Ernest. And then, ultimately, to him.
Before that deadly game of dominoes can get underway, though, Scorsese has to define these three people, and their two worlds.
Ernest, for example, isn’t irredeemably evil, at first. He’s just lazy and selfish and easily led, particularly if it’s toward easy money. He’s also frankly, a little stupid (something DiCaprio occasionally overplays by squinting a lot and sticking out his jaw). Even as his in-laws start dying, Ernest buries himself in dim self-denial, willfully ignoring what’s happening or trying to pretend it doesn’t truly involve him.
His Uncle William, though — a coldly calculating Robert De Niro — is malevolence personified. He has no real connection to this land or these people (he sits in an absurd Victorian mansion in the middle of the prairie, like some lost colonialist dreaming of home). Yet he can look his Osage neighbors in the eye and counterfeit respect. He can embrace his nephew, even as he’s plotting his demise.
Mollie, however — beautifully, heartbreakingly embodied by Lily Gladstone — is frank and forthright and as steady as a boulder in a raging river. If this is Oklahoma, a decade before “The Grapes of Wrath,” then she’s a younger, Native American Ma Joad — an indomitable force holding her family together throughout hardship and horror. Whatever life throws at her, she will abide, looking to the future and trying, stubbornly, to believe the best of everyone. Even Ernest — until she can’t.
Once his characters are established, Scorsese turns to the film’s themes, the first of which is “change.”
Lately, Scorsese has become a target for some audiences, who — appalled at his frank dislike of formulaic superhero movies — decry him as old-fashioned. This is nonsense. Like any great artist, Scorsese has always been open to risk and innovation. From the beginning, his movies incorporated dream sequences, different film stocks, shifts in narrative. He’s worked in nearly every genre (this is his first Western) and embraced any technology that served his purpose. (“Hugo,” his salute to early filmmaking, was done in 3D.)
But there is a difference between accepting change and realizing that the march of progress, however you define it, leaves something broken in its wake.
So Scorsese shows how, flush with sudden wealth, some in the Osage Nation discover new vices and uncover new vulnerabilities. People who once lived in ordered, close-knit communities get distracted by the overwhelming sensations and temptations of city life and fall prey to jealousy, or envy, or lust, or greed. Families who once existed in harmony with the earth now rip money from it and spend that unearned wealth on useless luxuries.
It’s as offering himself to Molly as a chauffeur that Ernest works his way into her life, and eventually into her heart. Yet she comes into his, as well. Which leads to the film’s greatest question: How can Ernest do this? He seems to love Mollie. He clearly adores their two children. So how can he watch as his uncle plots to murder his wife’s sisters? Or as her doctors prescribe medicine that only seems to make her sicker — injections he himself administers? How can he walk so easily into hell?
The way most men do — step by step by step.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a sad film and — at nearly three-and-a-half hours — certainly a long one. But it’s no chore to sit through.
It’s shot through with Scorsese’s exquisite style — a fire where the arsonists are lit like demons, a score (by the late Robbie Robertson) that draws on indigenous rhythms and Americana roots, a complicated tracking shot through a crowded house in which every room holds a different member, and a secret. It’s full of his dark sense of humor, too. Fifty years after “Mean Streets” and he still can’t help being bitterly amused at the idiocy of some criminals. (A tip: If you’re trying to stage a suicide, don’t shoot your victim in the back of the head.)
And while “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a film of death and deception and bigotry and corruption, it’s not depressing. In its own way, it’s even uplifting. That’s because Scorsese — like Spielberg, years ago, with “Schindler’s List” — knows that you don’t end a story like this with a grim memorial to those who perished. You end it with a shot of survivors, of a people who withstood everything, and still do. People who, in the end, saved themselves. You make it clear: They are the heroes of their own story.
And they haven’t finished writing it.
For screening locations, visit killersoftheflowermoonmovie.com. Here is a trailer:
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