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‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Review
An Idiot Crime Epic.
ONE THING THAT BECOMES CLEARER as the hours of Killers of the Flower Moon unfold is that the criminals at the heart of the picture are idiots, and unappealing idiots at that.
Now, Martin Scorsese’s evildoers have rarely been candidates for Mensa—I don’t think anyone was asking Henry Hill (Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) for help with their Sunday crossword; while Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro in Casino) could crunch numbers, his understanding of the world around him was suspect, at best—but they’ve rarely been complete goobers. And Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is, well, kind of a goober. With his bad teeth and his awkward vocal cadence and his shaky reading skills, Burkhart is the sort of man who falls into a life of nearly genocidal crime not because he is particularly evil or even because he’s looking for excitement but because he’s kind of simple and easily swayed.
At nearly three and a half hours long, Killers of the Flower Moon is a slow-boil idiot crime epic. Compared to pictures like Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street or Casino or Gangs of New York or even the similarly long The Irishman, it is staid, subdued. But you need the crushing accumulation of William King Hale’s (De Niro) sprawling plot to murder members of the Osage—and, through inheritance, gain control of rights to the oil underneath their land—to fully understand how a man like Burkhart falls under the sway of his conniving uncle, Hale.
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Perhaps most importantly, you need to see how Hale gets away with the stupidest, most ham-fisted of crimes because the people around him are perfectly willing to excuse what he’s done and what he’s doing. Whether it’s the townsfolk’s self-interest at play or simple racism or a combination of the two, the fact that he’s able to, for example, take out a life insurance policy on an Osage fella and have that fella wind up dead a few months later and have no one in the community question that fella’s death or Hale’s connection to it is shocking in its brazenly successful stupidity.
And this happens over and over and over again. Early on, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), Ernest’s wife, recounts the accumulating Osage bodies and their mysterious deaths—wasting diseases, accidents, “suicides”—and says, over and over and over again, that there was no investigation. No one looked into it. No one cared. These weren’t people who mattered, despite their wealth. In a way, it’s the very obviousness of the crimes that acclimates Ernest to accepting evil as a way of life: When crime is all around you and crime is all you see, when life matters little and all you think of is enriching yourself, it’s easy to accept it as the natural way of things. To acclimate to it.
It is this acclimation, I think, that Martin Scorsese finds himself most troubled by, the ease with which a community comes to accept wickedness when surrounded by it, when it originates from people they admire and hold to be their betters. It is an acclimation those on the outside watch with a sort of eye-widened horror as it happens: How can people just fall under the sway of such evil men doing such obviously evil things? Even if it’s in their own best interest? How can they abandon fundamental principles at the drop of a hat after promises from a charlatan? These are questions that continue to resonate for some of us to this day.
DiCaprio’s performance here isn’t quite as layered as in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or as devastating as in Shutter Island, but he plays Burkhart with a squinty-eyed idiocy that can’t be easy for a man of his innate charisma to pull off. Gladstone, meanwhile, embodies a sort of taciturn stoicism, the deaths of her family members and the indignity of being forced to ask a (white) banker for access to her money each month slowly eating away at her soul like the disease claiming her body.
They are, understandably, getting most of the awards buzz, but I’d like to spare a word of praise for the supporting cast. Ty Mitchell, Tommy Schultz, and Louis Cancelmi all play guys who get wrapped up in Hale’s schemes, and their characters really embody the film’s Idiot Crime Epic aesthetic. Between Schultz’s dull-eyed Blackie Thompson arguing with Ernest over whether Ernest gave him twenty bucks or a buck fifty for stealing his car in furtherance of insurance fraud or Cancelmi’s wide-eyed Kelsie Morrison asking a lawyer if he would get his adopted Osage children’s oil rights should they die—prompting the lawyer to tell him to his face that he suspects Morrison of planning their murder, only to have Morrison assure the lawyer that he won’t go through with it if there’s no money in it—their laugh-out-loud stupidity really drives home the picture’s point.
I appreciate what Scorsese is going for here and one gets the sense that he is very explicitly attempting to avoid any worries that audiences will identify with the film’s villains by making them as grossly stupid as he can. Still, Killers of the Flower Moon left me a little cold; frankly, I prefer the more manic sensibilities of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street to the more subdued ruminations on the nature of evil like Silence or this picture. It’s mid-tier Scorsese for me, though mid-tier Scorsese is still better than 90 percent of what’s out there. But I would like to linger momentarily on the film’s coda before I leave you.
Often in a movie of this sort, the picture will close with text informing us of what happened to the cast of characters after the fact. These are often accompanied by photos of the actual people, driving home that this really happened, you’re watching a true (or at least true-ish) story. Not so here. Rather, we get a recreation of an old-timey radio show taped in front of a live studio audience: there is a narrator; voice actors approximating the accents we’ve heard so far; guys banging spoons or clattering away at a keyboard to create sound effects, etc. And then, at the end, Scorsese himself comes out to address the audience, informing us that when Mollie died there was no mention of the murder of her mother or sisters or children.
On the one hand, we could consider this, simply, Scorsese’s effort to do something a little more cinematic than deploying title cards like Peter Berg to wrap things up. But I think there’s something more here. The true-crime radio show calls to mind the true-crime podcast, which in turn calls to mind the fact that real-life misery and murder have been deployed as entertainment for as long as entertainments have existed. (What is the Iliad’s chronicle of Agamemnon and Achilles’ war against Troy but an Idiot Homeric Epic?) The acknowledgment of the audience implicates us in that desire as well, just as the audience’s own greedy desires were implicated by the closing scene of The Wolf of Wall Street.
We make this world and we make the people in it suffer and then we make entertainments of their suffering for the world to consume. We are, perhaps, bearing witness to an artist nearing the end and considering the life cycle of the art he’s spent his life making.