The deeply unpalatable day when Martin Scorsese, now 80 years old, hangs up his clapperboard for good is drawing steadily nearer, but the great man isn’t going quietly into the night. His latest, an utterly gripping, impeccably constructed and politically-charged crime saga, wipes the dust from a neglected corner of indigenous American history – the serial murders of Osage Native Americans in 1920s Oklahoma – to tell a subversive story of greed, violence and systemic injustice that sits alongside some of his best work.
And subversion is clearly a big part of the appeal for Scorsese in The New Yorker journalist David Grann’s account of the crimes. In the early 20th century, the Osage people struck oil, enriching themselves and attracting hordes of white hucksters, hawkers and salespeople like bees to a honeypot. As Killers of the Flower Moon recreates that world in vérité style – the opening is all silent movie surtitles and ’20s-style newsreel reportage – it establishes a place where America’s crude racial hierarchy has been turned on its head. And that’s when the bodies start to pile up.
Whether Flower Moon is best categorised as crime flick, conspiracy thriller or western – and the ghosts of Wyler and Leone do haunt its vision of a frontier in flux – is up for debate. What it definitely isn’t is a whodunnit. Scorsese and Eric Roth’s screenplay fingers Robert De Niro’s owlish, avuncular cattle baron William Hale early as the man behind the crimes – he’s knocking off the ‘injuns’ to get their oil rights.
It’s utterly gripping and impeccably constructed
To speed the process, he needs his nephew, boneheaded Great War veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), to marry Osage heiress Mollie (newcomer Lily Gladstone). What Hale doesn’t bank on is Mollie stealing his nephew’s heart, initiating a tug of war for this man’s soul.
Only getting better with age, DiCaprio makes this feckless, jaundiced man human, but it’s newcomer Gladstone who provides the film with a flinty emotional core. Mollie is all mercurial charm and inscrutability, and the actress brings a deep emotional eloquence to a role that rarely furnishes her with much dialogue. Somehow, she sells the idea that there’s something in Burkhart that’s worth loving – and with it, she sells the whole film.
But truly, everyone here is top of their game. Thelma Schoonmaker’s masterful editing weaves together the story’s many threads and its rich ensemble of characters (special mention to Louis Cancelmi, who channels pure New Jersey hitman into his Okie lowlife). And Robbie Robertson’s old-timey blues score beats time to a movie so richly entertaining, its three hours and 26 minutes whip by in a blur. As the great man himself would say, what a picture!
In cinemas worldwide Oct 20, 2023.