Killers Of The Flower Moon review | Scorsese directs a stunning, unsparing crime drama

Killers Of The Flower Moon review
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Martin Scorsese directs an unsparing true story of murder and betrayal – and the result is stunning. Our review of Killers Of The Flower Moon:

A quiet rage flows through Martin Scorsese’s latest film, adapted from David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name by Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth. It’s a meticulous, tautly-woven period drama that dwells on what might be the most insidious form of evil: the kind that comes with a warm smile, that greets you with a hug, and grieves with you in your own language.

The hub of the whole sorry tale is Ernest Burkhart, played with clench-jawed belligerence by DiCaprio. Having served as a cook in World War I, he takes a train to Fairfax, Oklahoma in the 1920s, where his wealthy uncle Bill “King” Hale (De Niro) lives in a rambling ranch house painted an ominous shade of grey. Ernest is far from an intelligent man, but spotting a hint of loyalty, perhaps, Bill takes Ernest under his wing, and gets his nephew a job as a taxi driver.

Ernest provides a waypoint into the world of Oklahoma in the first decades of the 20th century, while Scorsese also uses a creative fusion of Academy ratio silent film clips and gliding tours of Fairfax’s dusty streets to deftly draw out a disturbing bygone era. The Native American Osage people struck oil years earlier, which on paper leaves them extraordinarily wealthy. For all their fine clothes and expensive cars, however, they live in a gilded cage. The Osage tribe’s money is kept under lock and key by white men; if they want to withdraw a sum, they’re required to declare themselves “incompetent” and explain exactly what they want to spend the money on. Everything is also suspiciously expensive in Fairfax; coffins cost thousands of dollars; routine tooth surgery runs into the hundreds. Just another way white-run businesses exploit the Osage people – or, as one Native American character puts it, “The white people circle us like buzzards.”

More disturbingly, the Osage are regularly dying under suspicious circumstances, and the cases are never investigated.

Against this backdrop, Ernest becomes a driver for the wealthy heir of Osage oil money, Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone). Gradually, what begins as cautious flirtation eventually grows into a full-blown love affair. Molly is infinitely more clever than Ernest, but as she notes, “He’s not smart, but he’s handsome.”

Bill, a seeming pillar of the community, knows there’s money to be made from the relationship: Molly and her sisters are heirs to their mother’s oil riches. If the mother and siblings were to die, then Molly would inherit all that wealth. Bill therefore explains to a highly suggestible Ernest that it might be a lucrative idea if he were to coax Molly into marrying him (“That’s a smart investment,” says Bill).

So begins a meandering, horrifying and at times desperately sad saga about murder, betrayal and seemingly endless greed. De Niro puts in some of his best work in years as Bill – eyes twinkling out from behind round glasses, beguiling the Osage while ruthlessly scheming behind their backs. The actor has created some unforgettably loathsome characters for Scorsese, from Travis Bickle to Max Cady to Goodfellas’ Jimmy Conway, and Bill’s up there with the best of them: there’s a polite slyness to the character that makes him constantly, stomach-churningly watchable.

Lily Gladstone is similarly magnetic – hers is an expressive, intelligent, mournful performance, and some of the film’s most devastating moments spring from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s observant framing of the internal struggle playing out across her face. Award nominations surely beckon.

Jesse Plemmons, who turns up later in the film as a brilliantly understated FBI agent, gets what might be the film’s key line: “narrow is the way.” It sums up both this movie and just about everything else Scorsese has made: it’s easier to give in to greed and wickedness than to be good. Ernest is a wicked man because he’s weak and lazy; Bill is wicked because he’s driven by greed and a lust for power. In fact, evil manifests just about everywhere in Killers Of The Flower Moon: the Ku Klux Klan filing through the streets; the men casually plotting the murder of friends, family, even children.

Lengthy at almost three and a half hours, Scorsese’s metronomic pacing – set to Robbie Robertson’s murmuring, bass-heavy score – means it seldom drags. It’s hard to believe, really, that it’s the product of a filmmaker in the sixth decade of his career; it feels as though he’s still inventing, still surprising himself – and us – with new ideas and visual flourishes. The spectral sight of an owl at a window; figures standing over a bed, clad in the most blazing red the film ever sees. Scorsese’s still urgent, still angry – the film’s jabs of violence are as blood curdling as anything in Taxi Driver or Casino – and still driven by his deep-seated sense of morality and justice.

Killers Of The Flower Moon is out in UK cinemas on 20th October.

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