Now 80 years old, landmark filmmaker Martin Scorsese has spent the last 10 years of his career specifically making films and telling stories that he’s been itching to tell for quite some time. The development of 2016’s Silence dates back to the early 1990s, shortly after Scorsese read the book upon which the film is based, and he reportedly began discussions with frequent collaborator Robert De Niro about 2019’s The Irishman back in the 1980s. Now comes Killers of the Flower Moon, another American crime epic based on true events that also stars De Niro but also includes fellow Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio. Both of the seminal actors give fiercely accomplished performances in a film that frustratingly and frequently feels that it’s taking the most pedestrian angle on this gripping and tragic true tale.
At the conclusion of World War I, veteran Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns to rural Oklahoma, where his thriving but conniving uncle Bill King Hale (De Niro) helps him secure a job as a driver for the well-off Osage locals. After giving several rides around town to oil benefactor Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Ernest finds himself falling for her and the two are soon married in a ceremony that reflects both of their respective Osage and Catholic backgrounds. But the honeymoon period is short-lived, as numerous Osage members of the community, including Mollie’s sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Minnie (Jillian Dion), turn up dead under mysterious circumstances. Despite her health problems, Mollie eventually gathers the strength to make the trip to Washington D.C. and bring the suspicious string of deaths to the attention of the Bureau Of Investigation.
Reportedly, the script, co-written by Scorsese along with veteran scribe Eric Roth, was originally centered around the BOI agent who is summoned from Washington and doggedly solves the Osage Indian murder case. DiCaprio, who was initially in talks to play Agent Tom White, pressed the screenwriters to revise the script to have Burkhart be the center of this story. So instead, Jesse Plemons shows up right around the 2-hour mark as the heroic agent and is framed as an antagonistic force to the murderous Burkhart, who is supposedly torn between the love of his wife Mollie and allegiance to his deceitful uncle Bill. Put simply, this is a mistake. DiCaprio does everything he can to make his Burkhart compelling main character but he’s just not nearly the most interesting facet of this fascinating crime saga. DiCaprio’s performance particularly stalls out in the final act, where less and less can be gleaned from the lugubrious grimace plastered on his face.
Fortunately, DiCaprio’s star power is still enough to win the day and he’s surrounded by actors — seasoned, untested and everything in between –who turn in incredible performances left and right. Obviously De Niro is a singular talent but after the string of forgettable work he’s had since The Irishman, it’s heartening to watch him really sink his teeth into the kind of role that made him a legend in the first place. Since making a splash in 2016’s Certain Women, Gladstone had so much trouble finding acting work that she was considering switching careers before getting an email about meeting with Scorsese to discuss this project. She is the quiet grace and stoic resiliency that serves as a poignant counterpoint to the greed and malice that surrounds her. It’s a powerfully rendered performance, one that I hope cements her as an actress we’ll be seeing pop up in many films for years to come.
Of course Scorsese has told stories of crime and corruption plenty of times in the past but with Killers of the Flower Moon, he still finds notes of wisdom and complexity anew within this sordid and blood-stained chronicle. At the outset, the movie has parallels to The Master, another tale of a clench-faced soldier returning from wartime to be taken under the wing of an untrustworthy father figure. But where that film fixates on man’s relationship to religious figures, Scorsese’s story ultimately comes down to the something men too often turn into a religion: money. Late into his career, Scorsese is telling the stories that matter to him the most and even if the results don’t quite match the level of brilliance found in his most defining work, they’re still better than what most other filmmakers are putting out at their peak.
Score – 3.5/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Peacock and playing in theaters is Five Nights At Freddy’s, a supernatural horror film starring Josh Hutcherson and Elizabeth Lail following a troubled security guard as he accepts a night-time job at a once-successful but now abandoned family entertainment center.
Premiering on Netflix is Pain Hustlers, a crime drama starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans about a high school dropout who lands a job with a failing pharmaceutical start-up but soon finds herself at the center of a criminal conspiracy with deadly consequences.
Streaming on Shudder and AMC+ is When Evil Lurks, a horror movie starring Ezequiel Rodriguez and Demián Salomon about two brothers living in a rural small town who take arms against a resident who is about to give birth to a demon.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup