When Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, and screenwriter Eric Roth first set about adapting David Grann’s penetrating nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon, about the wholesale murder of the oil-rich Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s, the idea was that DiCaprio would play the hero. His original role: Tom White, a former Texas Ranger and investigator for the then-nascent FBI who brought some of those responsible to justice, including local cattle baron William King Hale and his nephew, Ernest Burkhart.
But deep into development of the script, DiCaprio turned the film on its head. As Scorsese has told the story in several interviews — most recently with The New Yorker — DiCaprio sat Scorsese down and suggested that instead, he should play Burkhart: a craven, complicit man who married an Osage woman named Mollie and wound up caught between two worlds.
Although that meant ripping the script apart and starting almost from scratch, Scorsese leapt at DiCaprio’s suggestion. This was partly to bring the tribe’s perspective closer to the heart of the story via Mollie, and to swerve away from a white-savior narrative. But as Scorsese told The New Yorker, he had other reasons to do this, too. Prior to the change, the film was shaping up to be a detailed, methodical procedural, like the book it was based on, and something in Scorsese’s nature rebelled against that. He found he didn’t know how to tell that story. It was too simple. It lacked mystery. Through surviving members of Ernest and Mollie’s family, Scorsese discovered something that didn’t factor into the book, something unknowable that couldn’t be solved like a crime: In spite of everything, the couple had loved each other.
This is how the 80-year-old master arrived at this magnificent movie, which is as assured, questioning, and vital as anything he’s made in his career. Killers of the Flower Moon approaches the Osage people — and through them, the suffering and exploitation of First Nations people throughout America and beyond — with humility and curiosity, as well as despair and fury. It also portrays them with dignity, thanks in particular to a subtly spellbinding performance from Lily Gladstone (from Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and First Cow) as Mollie. But like so many of Scorsese’s films, its gaze is really turned inward at dark, conflicted, private impulses — more often than not, coming from white men — driving events that can seem too wild to grasp.
Whether that represents justice for the Osage (and whether any film directed by a white man could) will still be debated long after the film’s release. But in Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese is clear about his purpose and scrupulous about his responsibilities. Anyway, he’s never been a preacher, a forensic detective, or a judge. He’s a pure storyteller who wants to live the events as they happen to his characters, rather than picking them apart after the fact.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, he does this with unfussy confidence, working with his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker to pace out its intricate, intimate story over a linear three and a half hours that’s unhurried, but never draggy. The whirligig adrenaline rushes that powered his earlier true-crime epics, like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, are notably absent. Instead, the film moves with a steadier but no less hypnotic gait, driven by the quietly insistent pulse and shiver of a bluesy score from the late Robbie Robertson. For all the cowboy hats on display, this movie is no conventional Western, but it has some of that genre in its easy sweep, as well as its sudden bursts of shockingly matter-of-fact violence.
Roth and Scorsese carefully seed Killers of the Flower Moon’s script with context, texture, and detail, even when they’re avoiding exposition and making sure every scene has a dramatic point. It’s an incredibly lived-in movie. (And after 206 minutes, you certainly feel like you’ve lived in it.) It shows how the Osage became rich after being harried onto a dismal stretch of prairie that turned out to have huge oil deposits, and how a parasitic white society attached itself to the tribe — not least Hale (Robert De Niro), a grandfatherly figure who claimed their friendship, praised their wisdom, and feigned sorrow at their poor health, even as he plotted to acquire the headrights to their oil through a campaign of marriage, murder, and insurance fraud.
DiCaprio’s Ernest, a simple and greedy man, returns from the trauma of World War I to serve the Osage as a driver. Almost everything he does is at his manipulative uncle’s suggestion, whether he realizes it or not — including meeting and marrying Mollie, a sly, stoic woman whose family owns significant headrights. (According to a cruel bit of racist legislation, she’s deemed “restricted” and “incompetent,” and is only able to spend her own money with the approval of her white bank manager.) As Mollie’s sisters start to die one by one, and her own health falters, Ernest is implacably drawn into a criminal plot that’s equal parts devious, opportunistic, idiotic, tragic, and even darkly funny — straight out of the Scorsese playbook, in other words, albeit this time rooted in an even deeper and more unconscionable evil.
In Scorsese, Roth, and Schoonmaker’s telling, DiCaprio’s original character, FBI investigator Tom White (played by a wonderfully and typically imperturbable Jesse Plemons), doesn’t show up to begin unpicking this awful scheme until two hours into the movie. As with all of Scorsese’s crime movies, the law arrives less as a force of vengeance or justice than as an inevitable consequence of weakness and greed. And it’s always too late — a point underscored in late courtroom scenes luxuriating in the talents of John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser, both in oily, predatory mode, as dueling lawyers.
But although Scorsese’s scope is typically expansive, he never lets the film’s focus stray far from Mollie, Ernest, and Bill Hale, who insists his nephew call him “King.” As Mollie, Gladstone sees what’s going on through appraising, heavily lidded eyes, first with wry humor, then with dismay, even as her heart shrinks from the truth. DiCaprio is foolish and tortured: Ernest’s state of denial about his complicity progressively pulls his handsome face down into his neck in a grimace of self-deception and self-pity. De Niro plays Hale’s villainy in an understated, straight fashion, perhaps rightly sensing that it would be a mistake to complicate or humanize this monster.
In key scenes between Hale and Burkhart in a Masonic lodge and a jail, Scorsese seems to suspend them in an unreal, theatrical void — a dark spiritual vacuum that swallows them up. In another hyper-real stylistic flourish, Rodrigo Prieto’s shots of cowboys battling a ranch fire dissolve into a hellish tableau of distorted, quivering figures. But as Scorsese gets deeper into his old-master phase, it feels as though he’s running out of patience with the Catholic agonies and fire-and-brimstone filmmaking he’s known for. Killers of the Flower Moon is mostly plainspoken, sorrowful, and wise. At the very end, Scorsese makes a personal intervention on behalf of what really matters in this story. It’s a moving gesture from an artist who knows he only has time to say so much more, and who can see clearly what needs to be said.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters on Oct. 20.