The true story of the 1920s Osage Nation Indian murders gets a sweeping, epic and appropriately dark treatment from director Martin Scorsese—at the top of his game at 80 years old—with Killers of the Flower Moon.
The film pairs two of Scorsese’s go-to acting giants—Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio—for the first time in one of his films. The nearly 3 1/2-hour masterpiece never lags—and feels like it could’ve been twice as long, with no problem other than bladders bursting in the movie theater. This is not a film during which you will want to take any bathroom breaks.
Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns to Oklahoma after serving in World War I and immediately finds himself working for William Hale (De Niro) on land owned by the Osage Nation. The area is coveted for its oil, which has made many of the Osage rich.
The true events covered in the film are horrifying. Over a period of years, Osage people mysteriously disappeared or were outright murdered, with little to no investigation into the crimes—that is, until J. Edgar Hoover and his newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation sent some agents (one of them personified here by an excellent Jesse Plemons) on their first large-scale case. While the culprits were eventually revealed and put on trial, more than 60 (and possibly many more) Osage were killed.
Using David Grann’s nonfiction novel of the same name as the basis for his film, Scorsese and team tell the story in a surprising way—one that works as both a grim essay on a disgusting passage in American history, and a stunning mystery. Even if you manage to identify all of the perpetrators before the final revelations, the true depth of their evil deeds will knock you sideways.
This is one of Scorsese’s gloomier, darker pictures—but it’s anything but unwatchable. In many ways, it’s one of the more beautiful films he’s ever made, a true big-screen experience that puts that other 2023 gigantic historical drama, Oppenheimer, to shame. Where Oppenheimer felt padded and bloated at times, Scorsese’s effort is a well-oiled, masterful machine featuring awards-worthy performances across the board.
Lily Gladstone gives one of the year’s most heartbreaking performances as Mollie Burkhart, the Osage woman who Ernest marries. Sick with diabetes and deemed incapable of handling her own money by a band of dopey white guys—the government saw it fit to monitor people, like Mollie, who had to ask for permission to access their own funds—Gladstone gives a portrayal that embodies the full emotional range of a newly married woman experiencing the joys of motherhood while watching all of her relatives mysteriously die.
Leaning into his turmoil-acting toolbox, DiCaprio has never allowed himself to be this miserable onscreen before—and this guy was in The Revenant. There’s a love story at the center of this movie, but it’s in the middle of an earthly hell that pulls Ernest in many terrible directions. As the film progresses, so does the pain in Ernest’s face. DiCaprio, as usual, is fully committed and disappears into the guise of Ernest, one of the more complicated characters in Scorsese film history.
Then there is the great De Niro, who experienced an acting renaissance, of sorts, with Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) and now gets a crowning achievement with his portrayal of the deceptively despicable Hale. There’s a true sense of De Niro coming full circle here, delivering one of his best pieces of work in decades for the director who has given him his best roles over the years. The real-life Hale was in his 40s when the events of this film took place; De Niro is 80. Trust me, the age disparity won’t affect your appreciation of his performance one iota. It’s vintage, vital De Niro.
From the opening bars of the film’s beautiful soundtrack, it’s pretty obvious who penned the music: This is the late Robbie Robertson’s final score, and it is perfection. Expect some posthumous awards for the legendary composer.
There’s no telling if Scorsese and De Niro will ever work together again. Scorsese announced in a recent interview that he and DiCaprio will join forces for his next film, another adaptation of a David Grann nonfiction book, The Wager. If this is it for De Niro and Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon won’t just be one of the more important films of 2023, but one of the most important, monumental movies in film history—the end of an era.
Killers of the Flower Moon brings Scorsese, De Niro and DiCaprio together for the first, and perhaps last, time. How appropriate that such an occurrence resulted in an instant classic.