During most of Killers of the Flower Moon, I was thinking of Rick Dalton—ever since Once Upon a Time in Hollywood came out, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are Cliff and Rick to me. When I saw Ad Astra in the fall of 2019, I couldn’t help watching it as if it were a sci-fi breakthrough for the stuntman; DiCaprio has only appeared in one other film since then, Don’t Look Up, and while his wardrobe and prosthetics went a long way, he was still the stuttering mess that he was in Tarantino’s film. In Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s even more noticeable, uncanny at times: he has the same Southern accent, the same stupid grin, and the exact same chortle. “I hope it was Indian for ‘handsome devil’!” sounds like something Rick might’ve said on the set of Bounty Law, or in the show itself.
Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to The Irishman is another epic of American greed, murder, and myths. Adapted by Scorsese and Eric Roth from the book by David Grann, the film flips the narrative by focusing on the Osage and their white “guardians” in the 1910s and 1920s, rather than the FBI investigation (Jesse Plemons doesn’t appear for nearly two hours). Rather than a maddening attempt to make sense of a hopelessly complicated conspiracy, the movie Killers of the Flower Moon mostly follows the killers and the murdered. DiCaprio improbably plays a WWI veteran who marries Osage member Lily Gladstone; Robert De Niro is the “uncle” of the area, a supposedly benevolent white man who affects a genial persona in order to rob the Osage of their oil.
De Niro leans on DiCaprio to help him kill Osage members and his own sisters-in-law—De Niro tells him they’ll make more money if his wife has fewer relatives. He slips into killing and lying just as fast as the rest of the white men in this movie—“I LOVE MONEY, I LOVE MONEY!”—so fast that it barely registers. Like most epic Scorsese films, Killers of the Flower Moon is too short and too long; even at 206 minutes, it often feels like the movie is zooming by, and not in a good way. The revelation that one of DiCaprio and Gladstone’s children has died of whooping cough—the turning point that makes DiCaprio testify against De Niro at the end—hardly lands at all because we’ve barely, if ever, seen them with any of their children.
Gladstone has garnered unanimous praise for her performance, and while I’m glad she didn’t retire from acting and become a data analyst, I found her largely inert here, especially compared to her spellbinding performance in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. There, she was able to communicate so much with even fewer words, an unrequited and impossible love conveyed entirely with her face. She’s great here, but in service of what? Nothing magic like Certain Women; Killers of the Flower Moon is, like most Scorsese movies, a conventional drama.
The scope of the conspiracy, the number of victims, the brutality of their murders, the lack of morals—all of this is denuded by Scorsese’s conventional narrative approach, and try as I might for the last 20 years, I can’t appreciate his desaturated cinematography or his leaden, formulaic scripts. And just like his beloved Rolling Stones, I’ve never gotten the “bite” that many people feel from Scorsese; to me, he’s always been a rather conservative filmmaker, formally and in his choice of material. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, and Silence are the only great movies he’s made this century; like The Irishman, Killers of the Flower Moon is too hopscotch to ever really latch on emotionally. What sustains the film is the level of craft: unlike Babylon, this is an American historical epic by a real master from another era.
Even the remarkable ending is simply a rephrasing of “Print the legend,” and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance wasn’t the only Western I was thinking of during Killers of the Flower Moon. While the genre went into eclipse and then extinct in the late-1970s, films like Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid, and Little Big Man made the same argument and took the same position in the early-1970s as Killers of the Flower Moon does today. These films correct the myth of manifest destiny, and they show in graphic detail what scalping and mangled corpses look like. This isn’t to diminish the story of the Osage, but as a uniquely dark chapter in American history, it’s unfortunately mundane and, cinematically, underwhelming. And if Scorsese didn’t want to titillate the audience, he wouldn’t film so many murders with such tenderness, such glee. That doesn’t horrify people, it gets them in the theater; the movie could’ve used more lines like “Easier to get arrested for kicking a dog than killing an Indian.”
That line made someone behind me gasp and say “Jesus,” while the only piece of gore that elicited any real reaction was DiCaprio lifting up a woman’s head and half of it falling off. But these murders—bombs, “suicides,” poisonings—are undertaken so quickly and against people we hardly know. Bill Smith may be begging for someone to “SHOOT ME” after that explosion, but who is he? It’s obvious that the movie is cut to the bone, with so many shots trimmed down on both ends. Ironically, Scorsese never allows the film to breathe, considering Gladstone’s insistence that they listen to the power of the rain in silence.
Even with these reservations, Scorsese is a master filmmaker from a period that’s passed. The world will be worse without him making movies, even ones as bad as Gangs of New York. At the same time, every one of his films is a reminder for me that he’s someone I just never got, someone who seems so much more predictable and formally staid for such acclaim. He’s made masterpieces—Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, After Hours—but the rest? One dog looks one way, the other dog looks the other way, and the one guy is like “Whaddaya want from me?”
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith