Movie Review | “Killers of the Flower Moon” 

click to enlarge Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star as an uncle and nephew in "Killers of the Flower Moon."

Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple Original Films.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star as an uncle and nephew in "Killers of the Flower Moon."

Once upon a time, in the very recent past, the term ‘event cinema’ was saved for big superhero spectacles, franchise films, and endless sequels. There was a built-in audience guaranteed to generate hundreds of millions dollars worth in box office receipts —but lately, there's been a cooling on that front. The pervasiveness of established entertainment has ushered in a bit of a fatigue and made the movies feel like less of an event.

Last weekend, the tables turned, making a new Martin Scorsese movie an event, of sorts. His latest behemoth, "Killers of the Flower Moon," may not have made $100 million opening weekend, but with Scorsese behind the camera, an audience is ready to take notice. We don't see movies like this in the theatrical marketplace with the frequency we once did, and only the greatest living filmmaker can get people to anticipate a three hour-and-26 minute movie in a theater. It's easy to be daunted by the film's runtime, but "Killers of the Flower Moon" adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth from the David Grann book of the same name, moves beautifully throughout its entire runtime.

What's special about Scorsese's latest film is the chance to see his two muses — Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro — share the screen. DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, who returns home from World War I and is greeted with open arms by his uncle William King Hale (De Niro) and brother Byron (Scott Shepherd). The family lives in a small Oklahoma community populated by the Osage nation, once known as the wealthiest community per capita due to all the oil on their land. Hale, who is known as 'King' around town, has made himself a companion to the Osage, but has nefarious intentions of trying to take their land and money. He recruits Ernest to join his criminal operation.

Things get complicated when Ernest meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and quickly falls in love and marries her. Members of Mollie's family start dying, as many of the Osage did, but King is always close by to comfort the Osage when one of their own is brutally murdered, secretly hoping to make a buck from it. Ernest, meanwhile, goes along with his intimidating uncle’s instructions.

"Killers of the Flower Moon" isn't a movie whose purpose is to pull the rug out from underneath the audience. It's packaged as a gangster flick, but there's not much tension throughout the movie. Scorsese isn’t trying to thrill an audience with his latest film — "Killers of the Flower Moon" operates as an exposé of the atrocities committed against the Osage tribe. Everything that unfolds throughout the movie feels like a reckoning.

What's remarkable about "Killers of the Flower Moon" is how simpleScorsese and his crafts team, DiCaprio and De Niro, make it all look. DiCaprio disappears into Ernest, wearing the character like a second skin. De Niro strikes the right tone as the slimy King, a character that could have been played as a caricature. Gladstone, who gave one of the best performances of the last decade in Kelly Reichardt's "Certain Women," balances the larger characters with heartbreaking silence as her family and community are murdered. Gladstone is a quiet and reserved actress, usually signaling so much through her eyes — she’s a quietly emotional performer who transcends material that occasionally holds her back.

The burden of expectations foisted upon a new Scorsese movie might not be fair, because it's easy to expect the master filmmaker to create a masterpiece every time he releases a movie. His last film, "The Irishman," presented the mafia genre in a new melancholic key, and it worked perfectly. "Killers of the Flower Moon" is a very engaging movie, but imperfect in its presentation. The length of the movie allows a lot to happen to the characters, but some are thrown in without much build-up or exploration, especially in the last act. It occasionally causes a bit of plot whiplash.

There's been a valid discussion around whether "Killers of the Flower Moon" was Scorsese's story to tell. It would have been easy for him to relish in the gangster aspect of the story because his career has been made famous by such stories, but he doesn't do that here. He puts the criminals on full display and shows the pain their actions, greed, and callousness toward human life caused. For a big, bloody Scorsese movie, there's a great deal of empathy throughout.

Matt Passantino is a freelance contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be sent to [email protected].
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