Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Good Fellas, Gangs of New York) directs this historical drama about a series of murders in 1920s Oklahoma after oil was discovered under Osage Nation land, making the Native American tribe the target of unscrupulous white men bent on acquiring their newfound wealth. At the center of the story is Ernest Burkhard (Leonardo DiCaprio), recently returned from the Great War and living with his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a rancher and self-declared friend to the Osage. King encourages his nephew to marry an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone), setting him up to inherit her family’s oil wealth. (206 min.)
Glen: I was admittedly ignorant of this dark chapter of American history, but it absolutely tracks as the sort of treatment Native Americans have received at the hands of greedy white men. Instead of breaking a treaty or driving a tribe off its lands, this wealth grab is a lot more insidious—white men marrying into rich Osage families and killing off its members. What makes this film brilliant is the character studies of both Ernest and King, who we watch morph over the course of this story from seemingly decent into morally compromised and incredibly complicated men. Ernest especially struggles ethically. He loves Mollie, who’s suffering from diabetes, and even though he engages in criminal endeavors with his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd), there’s something naïve about Ernest. He doesn’t seem to understand he’s a bad man. It’s an incredibly nuanced performance.
Anna: Ernest promises he has a solid head on his shoulders when he first comes to his Uncle King’s house after being a cook in the Army. He seems to be an earnest Ernest, and his love for Mollie feels true. It soon becomes clear that his morals are less than sound, however, and we watch as the façade of a “nice guy” quickly wanes. He may love his wife and his kids and his life, but he lives under the thumb of his uncle who seems to have no qualms about using his nephew to do his bidding. King still treats Ernest as a child, with the idea that the younger man must be taught his lessons and doled out his punishments. This film is all about relationships and the complications of those realities. It is an epic, Scorsese style.
Glen: It’s a huge movie! Huge cast, huge runtime, huge crew, including director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Argo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence). He outdoes himself here. From the opening shot featuring Osage dancing in a slow-mo shower of gushing oil to the ending crane shot of the Osage drum and dance ceremony, it’s an amazing looking film. The story also touches on the 1921 Tulsa race massacre as well as the FBI predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation, and its new director J. Edgar Hoover, who sent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to figure out who’s killing the Osage. It’s a devastating story and another feather in Scorsese’s feather-filled cap.
Anna: It really is a beautiful piece and a gripping look at the mechanics of people and what drives them. The cast is stellar—both DeNiro and DiCaprio do well at portraying the duality of their characters. In the end, both men are despicable. Scorsese is a world builder, and Killers of the Flower Moon lives up to his reputation. I was woefully unaware of the sad history of the Osage people and these murders, and I doubt I am alone in that. This epic is one to be seen on the big screen, just be prepared for the three-and-a-half-hour journey. It’s well worth it.
New Times Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Sun Screen. Comment at [email protected].