Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the most widely anticipated and best
reviewed films of 2023, and at the time of this writing it has a 95% score on
Rotten Tomatoes. Many early reviews have called it a masterpiece, and it is a
strong front runner in the Oscars race for multiple awards including best film,
actress, actor, cinematography, and director. But although this tragic epic
western is monumentally ambitious and has several outstanding performances, it
is only a partial success.
The film was based on a highly acclaimed novel with the same name about a
horrific murder of many people in the Osage tribe, which is subtitled, The Osage
Murders and the Birth of the FBI. But it does not focus much on the FBI part of
the novel, and if anything, the film tries to capture too much of the novel.
Originally the film like the novel was focused more on an FBI protagonist,
played by Leonard DiCaprio but the film was changed so that a murderer, Ernest
(also played by DiCaprio) would be the main character.
When I saw the three hours or so of
the films never felt long, and they did not overstay their welcome. I would have
gladly stayed for longer versions. But at three and a half plus hours plus
Killers of the Flower Moon feels painfully long. It often moves at a snail’s
pace and at least a full hour could have been cut without significantly hurting
the story. The director Scorsese has had such a great career and he’s so
universally respected that it might be hard for anyone to say no to him when he
has a bad idea. Paul McCartney who has a similar stature in music and has made
many flabby albums.
Martin Scorsese is of course undeniably a great filmmaker who lent his name to
many masterpieces. Killers of The Flower Moon occupies a middle level quality
position in his oeuvre. It is neither a total failure nor complete masterpiece,
and despite what some critics say I don’t think it will be remembered as one of
his classic films. I have a feeling it is being a bit overrated because of its
However, the Mexican born cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (a likely Oscar
nominee) who also shot
(2019) does some of his best work in the film. His wide shots of Fairfax,
Oklahoma evolving over the years are simply stunning. There is also a great shot
early in the film of native fields bubbling over with oil which seems to
foreshadow the blood shed that occurs later in the film.
The sixty Osego Indian murders occurred in Oklahoma in the 1920’s. Oil was found
on their reservation, so the Osage tribe members became some of the richest
people per capita. There is an interesting role reversal scene where the natives
are appearing in public in the finest clothes while Caucasian locals beg them
Of course, this inspired some envy and dark schemes. A rancher named William
Hale (Robert De Niro in fine form) soon makes plans to get ahold of the money
and he encourages his nephew who he sometimes treats as his son, the ironically
named Ernest (played by Leonard Di Caprio) to help him realize his financial
Ernest is a despicable character who is as nearly as immoral as his uncle, but
not half as smart. Ernest is an ex-army cook who loves money but hates work. He
chauffeurs a wealthy Osage woman named Mollie around who is charmed by his
apparent honesty and his boyish good looks, and he in turn seems to be fond of
her. When the uncle finds out, he helps push them into marriage. They are a
happy couple in the beginning but then Mollie’s sisters begin dying off and
Mollie’s diabetes gets much worst.
There is no suspense because we know from the beginning that Ernst is a
murderer, and he is not at all morally conflicted. Like many people he may think
the death of native culture is inevitable and would agree with historian Francis
Parkman when he condescendingly wrote that native “will not learn the arts of
civilization and he and his forest must perish forever.” But I am not sure
Ernest’s thinking is that sophisticated and perhaps this is more likely to be
his uncle, William’s point of view.
I have not read the novel, but the movie suffers because it is focused so much
on the least interesting of its three leads, Ernest who is a far flatter
character than Mollie or William. To be honest I have never been quite sure why
do many consider DiCaprio to be such a great actor. In this film he does an ok
job playing a stupid and transparently corrupt character and adds nothing
special or extra to the role. Di Caprio’s idea of character complexity seems to
be to stick out his jaw when he is sadly pondering something. A New Yorker
critic was correct when he argued that” DiCaprio “is a perennial kid in a world
of grownups.” In contrast both DeNiro and Gladstone are fabulous.
The best performance in the film by far was given by Lilly Gladstone, playing a
sad and saint like victim of her husband’s cruelty, and she is the only truly
good major character in the film. In the film, her trusting character suffers
from diabetes and DiCaprio as her husband slowly poisons her all the while
claiming he loves her and is treating her illness.
At one point early on she looks at him and says, “Coyote needs money.” This is
extremely appropriate because in native lore, the coyote is a trickster God like
Loki and anyone who deals with him gets burned. It almost seems like she must
know on some level how horrible Ernest is, but she stays with him anyway,
perhaps because she does genuinely love him or she thinks it’s her duty as a
wife. It would be a travesty if Gladstone did not get an Oscar nomination in
this film, in fact the film might have been better if it were focused more on
Some of the best scenes in the film deal with Native American culture and ritual
(such as a magnificent burial and a great wedding) but there are too few of
these scenes. The costume designs are also gorgeous and the native women are all
draped in gorgeous multicolored blankets. The film does deal with native culture
better than the over-rated Dances with Wolves and most traditional westerns.
Killers of the Flower Moon has some decent courtroom scenes which feature the
film’s best cameos. Brendan Frasier (still looking as big as he was in
The Whale) delivers some fiery oratory and John Lithgow, who is always wonderful,
has some fine scenes as a prosecuting attorney.
When I saw this film on the opening day at Chicago Ridge Theatre there was a big
problem with the sound. During the ultra-serious courtroom scene in which Ernest
is being prosecuted I could hear the peppy upbeat pop songs of Taylor Swift from
a neighboring screen and it rendered the whole scene ironic and ridiculous.
The film wraps up in a delightfully original way. We see some people (including
Scorsese himself) putting on a play that reveals the final fates of all the
major characters in the film. It also makes us consider how this story was told
as opposed to how it is taught today.
Killers of the Flower Moon could be useful in teaching about the history of
racism. At one point a character admits that it would be easier to get
punishment for a man mistreating a dog then a white man killing an Indian. But
then again, a two-hour doc or a drama or book focusing on the natives could end
up being an even more effective learning tool in the classroom.