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Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese’s engrossing 1920s-set historical thriller is a three-hander on an epic canvas.
Martin Scorsese’s engrossing 1920s-set historical thriller Killers of the Flower Moon opens with a lament. Elders of the Oklahoma Osage tribe gather to grieve for the younger kin who have been seduced by the decadence of their white neighbors. In many cases, these “deaths” are spiritual, but plenty will become actual—the dreadful end game of an elaborate ruse to bilk the Natives of wealth attained through the area’s plentiful oil reserves.
Author David Grann chronicled this horrific real-life plot, and the scrutiny of it by the then-nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation, in his 2017 nonfiction book of the same name as the film. Scorsese, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth, initially followed Grann’s procedural template with the F.B.I. as the primary focus. But during pre-production he and Roth changed tack, inverting the narrative so that the Osage and their slaughterers take center stage, with particular emphasis on the half-witted Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), his calculating rancher uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro), and Ernest’s Osage wife, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), who’s willfully blind to the devils in her midst.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a three-hander on an epic canvas, a corrosive analysis of America’s colonialist and capitalist excesses as refracted through a marital melodrama in the vein of George Cukor’s Gaslight or Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. As those artists did in those films, Scorsese cultivates a spellbinding air of uncertainty, even though it’s clear from the moment Ernest courts Mollie at his uncle’s insistence that little good will come from their pairing.
Ernest is dim, but much like his uncle—who utilizes his reputation as an upstanding member of the community as a deflective shroud—his outward charm and gentility tend to win the day. Even as the bodies pile up, and even as Mollie loses friends and family to poison and bullets and bombs, a glimmer of hope remains, until nearly the film’s climactic scene, that her husband’s love is true. That Ernest couldn’t possibly be the cold-blooded murderer he appears.
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