First-look review: Killers of the Flower Moon
Martyn Conterio | On 21, May 2023
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons
Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the best-selling history book by David Grann, is an exemplary and unexpected adaptation. It uses a complex and often horrifying true-crime story of greed and racism to create a work that ingeniously switches genres while maintaining its core theme of personal and historic betrayal.
It is set in the early 1920s, in the years after the Osage Native Americans discovered black gold on their supposedly worthless land. They became unbelievably wealthy and therefore targeted by greedy whites. A man they believed to be a dear friend and an ally of the tribe, William Hale (Robert De Niro), in fact masterminded a campaign of terror and murder against the Osage.
It reduces a sprawling historical story into a more simplified narrative – now Hale has specific designs on the wealth of one woman in particular, Mollie (a brilliant Lily Gladstone), married to his idiot nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who came back from fighting in the First World War looking for a job and a purpose. Ernest’s weakness is money and having an easy life, so Hale the puppet master, the orchestrator of evil, doesn’t have to do much persuading to get the gullible Ernest involved.
This sprawling and handsome-looking picture, which harks back to the type of 1940s melodrama picture made by the likes of George Stevens, King Vidor or Elia Kazan, is of course brilliantly acted by the ensemble cast. De Niro – thank the Lord – gives a wonderfully villainous turn as Hale and surprisingly gets to play his role with bits of humour, and it works because he’s a clever and devious man having to use dolts and morons to do his bidding. But the film belongs to Lily Gladstone. Mollie exudes calm and dignity while surrounded by vipers. No doubt the performance will earn plenty of awards chatter come the autumn.
From murder and intrigue to gaslighting thriller to courtroom drama, the film deftly changes gears every hour, seamlessly so, while maintaining its core as a narrative centred on burning betrayal. It might well surprise those who read what was, at points, a deeply disturbing and shocking book, that the FBI characters have been reduced to side characters – Jesse Plemons, touted as the lead, is very much a supporting character, so too are the other law enforcement and government figures. In radically changing the premise and focus of the storytelling, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth tapped into the dreadful real-life event as an expose on the hidden sins of a nation, on how Manifest Destiny changed shape but continued well into the 20th century, how racism, how seeing others as less than human, gave the signal to some that they could do what they liked. A sombre and tragic epic, Killers of the Flower Moon is top-tier Martin Scorsese.
Killers of the Flower Moon will be released in cinemas on 6th October 2023 before going on to stream worldwide on Apple TV+