Martin Scorsese reunites with his two frequent lead actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, for his new grand tale, Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s yet another high-octane criminal thriller, but don’t anticipate the tempo of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or the searing intensity of Raging Bull (1980). This film is also Scorsese’s Western, but once again, don’t anticipate Leonardo and Robert engaging in a cowboy duel, although they do exactly that but symbolically, through mind games.
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It gives the impression of being a visual adventure to relocate the action from Scorsese’s home turf of New York to the countryside of Oklahoma. But Scorsese not only changes the coordinates, but also brings an authentic sense to the proceedings, from how the Osage community in 1910-20s conducted their weddings and funerals and carried out their daily lives.
We get introduced to the land of the Osage through the viewpoint of an outsider, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo), and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s lens on the backdrop is polished and touristy. But by the end, when we see an aerial shot of the Osage community dancing away in their vibrant attire to their native music, we feel a sense of belonging, with a hint of sadness for the decimated remains, as if we knew one of them intimately.
Composer Robbie Robertson sporadically releases the instantly familiar Western score, but the cowboyish element is intertwined with a sense of apprehension: as if the white men are here for some good ol’ hat-doffing, horse-trotting, gun-wielding amusement, without any inkling about what all that’s going to cost. Country music is used to establish a timeline for the events, but also to provide lavish and much-needed contrast to the bloodshed in the narrative.
However, the music can’t completely salvage the pace of the film. This film isn’t as heart-wrenching a slow burn as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021). Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is never lax, but struggles to encompass the vast screenplay co-written by Scorsese and Eric Roth. Killers of the Flower Moon is an outstanding piece of filmmaking for its duration. Without that caveat, it’s merely good.
Return of Scorsese’s inspirations
By now, one can perceive how much Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are on the same wavelength as Scorsese. They just understand him. Leonardo abandons all his conceit, something that he showcased in The Wolf of Wall Street, to portray a disoriented yet morally redeemable individual. His eyes reflect profound sadness and pure frustration when he’s pressured to choose between him and Ernest’s wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone) by his uncle William Hale (Robert). He strikes a delicate balance between reverence and vengeance when he tells William, “My life is all regret.”
Speaking of William, Robert De Niro has a great deal of fun with his role. From intimidating an Osage woman with his menacing gaze while saying, “You don’t have to be scared,” to proclaiming himself “as innocent as a newborn, maybe even more” after systematically eliminating a significant portion of a community, Robert knows how to embody the malicious dressed in a three-piece suit.
Lily Gladstone is the revelation of this film, as she dominates the first half with her spirit and on-screen presence. Once she starts deteriorating is when we feel a void – of what Lily, like her character Mollie, would have been capable of if she had been encouraged towards greatness. It feels empowering to witness her break out of the cycle of torment in the end, which she had quietly suspected throughout the narrative.
Scorsese, therefore, succeeds in making David Grann’s novel his own. His adaptation takes its sweet time to unfold, bit by bit, yet it never feels indulgent or tokenistic. When the filmmaker appears at the end to narrate the final page of the book, his teary eyes speak volumes about an epic meticulously constructed and evocatively executed.
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