The word comes out of Lily Gladstone’s mouth quietly and clearly enough, with a hint of contempt: “incompetent.”
Gladstone’s character, Mollie Burkhart, of the Osage Nation in northern Oklahoma, legally identifies as such when asked by her banker to state her name and full-blood Osage status. In the early 1920s, brought to life by director and co-writer Martin Scorsese’s film “The Killers of the Flower Moon,” the word “incompetent” meant that, as an Osage, he was unable to manage his affairs on his own. . He needed a white guardian to manage his family’s newfound oil wealth.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When all the crude oil blew up from Osage lands, the white residents of the area were filled with jealousy. There’s a line from David Grann’s book of the same name — which I wish was in the script — that quotes Osage chief Wah-Ti-An-Kah after his people were expelled from Kansas in the 1870s and moved to the current location. Osage County, Oklahoma. He said at the time that the area’s rocky hills were meant to benefit the Osage Nation: “A white man can’t put down iron things here.” The images are blunt, invasive and practically sexual. And as history says, this is not true. They could and they did, and so did the Osage.
Both Grann’s angry nonfiction, released in 2017, and Scorsese’s heavily re-centered dramatization, “The Killers of the Flower Moon,” chart a dire, increasingly grim course. In the movie, we know directly who did what to whom; In the book, author Grann reserved most of her narrative for the early years of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, while strategically withholding more information. The book specifically focused on an agent named Tom White, who led the case that solved the mystery of dozens of murdered or “disappeared” Osage people.
Flawed, a little flabby in its middle hour but remarkable in many respects, the film doesn’t invest enough in Mollie or Gladstone; Without him, this $200 million project would be unthinkable.
Scorsese has depicted a tragic, desolate slice of American history that owes equal debt to classic Hollywood mastery and the director’s own obsessions with honor, guilt, family, criminal laws, and America’s centuries of rapacious bloodshed. This is Scorsese’s first Western; After a significant rewrite by Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth, he essentially saved the film from itself. “The Killers of the Flower Moon” is not interested in revisionist history. It’s history, it’s period, it’s fictionalized (it’s not a documentary, of course), but it’s pretty close to the historical record.
Returning from kitchen duty during the Great War, Ernest Burkhart is taken under the wing of his uncle, William “King” Hale, played by Robert De Niro, played with sly moral rot by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his best performances. Hale has done well for himself. Friendly, fatherly, full of secrets, he’s like the Oklahoma Babbitt of small-town boosters, a friend of the Osages (at least he’s learned their language). “They are kind people,” he tells Ernest. But “sick.”
Before long, Hale assumes the role of matchmaker and encourages Ernest, who works as a chauffeur, to court Mollie. He controls his family’s oil rights; That the oil money would flow to Ernest and his relatives in due course. Early in Scorsese’s dazzlingly fluid first hour, Gladstone’s Mollie can be heard in voiceover as several Osage deaths enter the books. He speaks in the tone of someone who knows a conspiracy is coming, and the audience knows it too.
Throughout the 3.5-hour film — the length feels right and necessary — aspects of this plot and Hale’s mastery of puppetry operate like tributaries feeding a great, bloody river. FBI agent White (Jesse Plemons) enters the film about two-thirds of the way through; Plemons is unmistakably well-cast, and it’s a rightly restrained performance.
DiCaprio, let’s not forget, is both a top-notch actor and a major star, and as the lazy bum who actually loves Mollie in the film, he never plays for our sympathy. He is a weak man in his uncle’s captivity, and though it may be a low bar for humanity, Ernest eventually faces a test of his will as the film turns into a courtroom drama.
If there’s a weak link, it’s De Niro, and I’m still trying to understand why. “Flower Moon” is the 10th feature film he and Scorsese have made together in the half-century since “Mean Streets.” (For Scorsese and DiCaprio, this is the 6th film.) As the godfather figure of this true crime story, De Niro is a few decades older than the real Hale in the 1920s, which hardly matters. Effectively and often entertainingly, she embraces the man’s surface charm and sly interest in his Osage neighbors. The Okie dialect comes and goes. I wonder if Hale needed more natural, rough-hewn contradictions to fully activate and complicate the role.
As for Gladstone, this hardly represents his groundbreaking achievement. It appeared in my book years ago, at least as early as Kelly Reichardt’s. “Some Women” (2016). For example, Gladstone’s deep, soft, expressive voice is unlike anything in today’s movies. His sense of detachment and his amused, wise perspective: also unique. Mollie comes and goes as a central figure at the behest of Roth and Scorsese’s adaptation. But when it gets the screen time it clearly deserves, this is serious, often bleak but emotionally powerful magic.
In one scene, Mollie and Ernest are eating dinner together at her house when a rainstorm arrives. “We need to be quiet for a while,” she tells her talkative, restlessly scheming future husband. Scorsese treats the scene in just this way, letting his brilliant production designer Jack Fisk set the mood for his setting. Scorsese has also muted his technique, especially since his films “Silence” (2016) and “The Irishman” (2019). It doesn’t move the camera as often as it used to.
“Flower Moon” consciously draws on diverse influences, such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, and his signature low-budget Westerns, such as Robert Wise’s film noir-tinged “Blood on the Moon.” (Check it out if you haven’t.) “Flower Moon” initially developed a script in which DiCaprio played the FBI agent and the Osage characters were left to their own devices in the background. DiCaprio then suggested that he play Ernest instead. There is more to play for there, more uncertainty and vulnerability. The change and resulting revisions seem to have done the job.
Should Scorsese have gone further to re-center the story around Mollie? Yes. But at least we’re a long way from the smug “Dances with Wolves,” which won the best picture Oscar despite treating the First Nation characters surrounding Kevin Costner as pretty pictures rather than as quite human beings. What Scorsese has done here walks the fine line between the conspirators and the victims of this historical tragedy. The latter doesn’t quite get its due, but the whole “Flower Moon” still provides a pretty full experience.
The Osage murders were the subject of newspapers and newsreels—Scorsese and legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker do an excellent job recreating Movietone footage of the Osage oil boom—and were made into a silent film in 1926 (“Osage Hills Tragedies” estimated to be lost). Years later, on radio, the tragedy was turned into the “Flower Moon” story, a triumph for the FBI, and it nearly fell on itself.
I love this movie, in part because it acknowledges its place in the chain of mythology. Scorsese himself makes a cameo appearance in the radio broadcast finale, and it’s oddly affecting; joins a timeline of popular cultural treatments of painful American history. His film is a lavish, big-budget period piece, with old-style set structure and full frames, with extras in period-perfect costumes.
But there’s more: This is a story of terrible injustice and who got away with what for years. “Flower Moon” isn’t equipped for slow burners or conventional thrills, no matter how violent most of them are. (You can’t believe everything you see in a movie’s trailer.) At its core, it’s a compelling elegy for the Osage, who, as one character puts it, “just barely made it past sunset,” thanks to so many revered murderers. in the land of freedom.
“The Killers of the Flower Moon” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for violence, some gruesome images and language)
Running time: 3:26
How to watch: Premieres in theaters October 19
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.