Killers of the Flower Moon: In Martin Scorsese’s films, a perennial fascination with the notion of power prevails – the structures, the layers, the intricate flow of it. However, it’s not the person at the very top of the ladder who captivates the director, but those who occupy the rungs just below. Characters like the steadfast contract killer Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” or the resilient foot soldier Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” teetering on the precipice of the mob’s inner circle. Now, in Scorsese’s masterful adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” we meet the hapless Ernest Burkhart (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio), the unassuming nephew of the Machiavellian cattle rancher, William Hale (a towering and treacherous Robert De Niro), the mastermind behind a wave of murders and a ruthless land and wealth grab.
The early 1920s in the town of Gray Horse, Osage County, Oklahoma, are like any other period and place in the US, where money and power are inextricably linked. What sets it apart is the curious quirk of geological fate that places the wealth not in the pockets of the white community but within the Osage Native Americans, following the discovery of vast oil reserves on their reservation. The town is imbued with a feverish gold rush atmosphere, where the camera whirls in a madcap waltz past brawling oil workers vying for employment and shrewd operators trying to wrest the Osage’s wealth from them. Amidst this chaos stands Ernest, a recent army veteran unfit for physical or mental exertion. He ends up at the door of his prosperous uncle, Hale, who insists he be called “king,” a title seemingly without options. Hale sees potential in his pliable, docile nephew and involves him in a scheme that leaves a trail of bodies within the Osage community.
DiCaprio’s portrayal of Ernest is a departure from his usual roles. He blinks, seemingly struggling to grasp the meaning of his uncle’s words, and repeats them back as if trying to unravel their significance. His furrowed brow and downturned mouth give him the appearance of a bulldog slowly comprehending that he’s been cheated out of a biscuit. A significant portion of the film’s 206-minute duration consists of reaction shots of Ernest, clueless and struggling to comprehend the demands placed upon him. It’s a remarkable performance, teetering on the edge of tragicomedy, and a fascinating departure for DiCaprio, typically known for his sharp-witted characters.
However, this is also one of the few nagging issues in this captivating, far-reaching epic. Under the gentle prodding of his uncle, Ernest marries Mollie (a magnetic Lily Gladstone), a “full-blood” Osage woman who holds a share of the “headrights” to the oil deposits on her family’s land. While it might be a stretch to believe that Mollie, with her regal demeanor, would be drawn to someone like Ernest, Gladstone and DiCaprio manage to convince us that their union is more than a matter of convenience – it’s a marriage rooted in true love.
Mollie becomes the heart of a story populated by the heartless or, at the very least, the clueless. When her character is sidelined by illness in the third hour, the film responds in kind – the rhythmic bass in a score fusing bluegrass and Native American rhythms weakens into a musical arrhythmia. This momentary sidelining of Mollie, both as a character and a source of strength, contributes to one of the rare segments in this crisply edited film where momentum lags.
But just when you think it’s about to settle into the familiar tropes of a crime investigation procedural, Scorsese executes a final sleight of hand. A daring scene, featuring a brief cameo by the director himself, drives home the point that not only the land and its resources were plundered from the Native American people but also their culture and stories, including this one.