Reviewed by Chris Cassone
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 3:26 - Contains spoilers
"Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it."
Great art tells the truth. We know it when we see it, when we feel it. It vibrates within us. "Killers of the Flower Moon" tells very hard-to-swallow truths about specific people in a 1920's county in Oklahoma. And it vibrated strongly with this moviegoer. So much so that I long for my newfound friends, the Osage tribe, and refuse to let them go. Their quiet gentleness and measured strength beneath their naivete attracted many, including the worst humanity could put forth. And once they became oil barons, everyone wanted a piece of them.
Martin Scorsese pulls the curtain to reveal the basic flaw in our human nature: greed. He reminds us, it's not a "Who dunnit?" but rather a "Who didn't do it?" Wrapped in a fine work of art, the Scorsese cinematic experience, these truths vibrated within me for the full 206 minutes. And beyond. Don't let anyone tell you it's too long. Truth is, it's too short. The whole sordid story could have been extended into a limited series.
Returning home from the battlefields of World War I, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) hops off the train in Fairfax, OK,
and immediately is in the control of his uncle, William "King" Hale (Robert DeNiro.) From the start, we have a feeling of promise, success and optimism, especially after we saw the burst of the oil gusher and the Osage Indians dancing in the spray. Yet we cannot avoid the first foreshadowing of the film, its title. Clearly, someone is going to die. And one by one, as we meet the characters, I cringed at the thought. Will it be her? Or that couple? It turns out, it's a story as old as Cain and Abel.
Wakonta, the Great Spirit, blesses the Osage or curses them, depending on your point of view. Scorsese goes to great lengths to show the tribe win the biggest lottery of life - they struck oil on their Reservation land in 1890. Now they would be calling the shots. The newsreel footage tells the history of the boom times, and one stunning image still remains: a group of squaws decked out in the finest furs of the times, before their row of Packards. Remember, this oil helped fuel the allied armies in Western Europe and made the several thousand Osage rich beyond the definition.
But they never ever really had full control of their destiny as the white man always had to delegate "guardians" or "overseers" to direct the "headrights" or proof of claim to receive the checks. White men always had their hands in the till. Yet, I didn't come away with the bad taste of racism in my mouth like many. If they were little green men from Mars, the whites of Osage County would be stealing from them as well. It's like when Willie Sutton answered the question, "Why do you rob banks?" They robbed and killed the Osage because "that's where the money was." And it was never enough. At least, there was never enough for King Hale who believed that he deserved a piece of their wealth just as much as they did.
Our sweeping epic begins with the ceremonial burial of the peace pipe, possibly upon the grave of Lizzie's husband, one of the first Osage to die in the Reign of Terror. And the epic is sweeping. The vistas of the great plains are shot in as large an aspect ratio as possible (2.39:1) and it should be noted that Scorsese is a fan of and produced the film for IMAX. In a post-production interview, he exclaims that his movie is a spectacle and should be seen as such.
DeNiro's Hale was a sweet old uncle who had their best interests at heart, and he never stopped telling them that. He honestly loved the Osage, and his delusion was so strong that he believed their money was his. All told, he was tied to almost sixty deaths throughout the decade. But we still wanted to believe him, he was that good a salesman. King Hale is the best thing to ever happen to the Osage, and he has them repeat that line constantly.
DiCaprio had a transformation in this role. He physically morphed into Ernest, changing his complexion, his facial features and even his gait, naturally, for the role. It had the unnerving effect of making him that much more believable to me. A pathetic creature who we wanted to do good, he ultimately fails us. We cheer for his wedding to Molly but soon after, he is injecting her with not only the hard-to-obtain insulin but also with a nefarious additive, obviously to help increase her "wasting disease." The simple beliefs of the Osage were their own undoing as they succumb to every evil trick in the book, from poisoning to walking into the forest alone with evil men. Anne even prophetically announces in her drunken state, "You're gonna kill me, aren't you?"
Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Ernest returns from the dynamiting of a neighbor's home, and finds all his family and more in a storm cellar. No words are exchanged, just a look and a head shake are enough to convey the outcome. It is followed by, as Scorsese calls it, "a primal scream" by Lily Gladstone's Molly.
Scorsese always reaches out to his friends and new acquaintances in the entertainment world to participate. The director convinced his friends from the music world to join the cast including White Stripes' Jack White, bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, country stars Randy Houser and Jason Isbell, among many others. Brendan Fraser added the perfect overstuffed lawyer probably as he was losing the weight he gained for "The Whale."
This film was a watershed moment for the late music producer Robbie Robertson who passed just after his role was finished.
A long-time Scorsese ally, Robertson's Cayuga and Mohawk blood from his mother put him in a key position: the perfect guy to score the film, especially with his enriched Americana roots and Scorsese history ("The Last Waltz.") Anyone who owns "Music From Big Pink" knows that. The Band created the genre we now call Americana. His inclusion of dusty Delta blues was key in the film's persona, insinuating the wail of pain the Osage suffered during Hale's "Reign of Terror."
The film ends in an unusual light-hearted way. An old-time radio show wraps up the loose ends for us, as if we were listening all evening. Complete with on-site radio orchestra and sound effects guy, (think of Prairie Home Companion but the real thing.) As the show comes to a close, Martin Scorsese as the show's producer, steps up to the old ribbon microphone to read the obituary of Molly. An actual obit and an actual, teary-eyed reading stopped me in my tracks. It punctuated this magnificent and historically accurate tragedy with a dose of sad truth. The director said he is more concerned with the ability of his film to work on us, at a later date, and make us think, question and remember.
I do want to return to the Osage and honor them and I believe that is what the director wanted.