Around the halfway mark of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Ernest Burkhurt and his uncle, William Hale, drive around the town of Fairfax, which looks exceptionally lit on a seemingly normal evening. Yellow string lights are hanging outside every single Osage house, implying that it is the time of festivities. Unfortunately, though, it is rather the opposite. A series of horrific deaths have severely impacted the community. The lights are, in fact, a desperate attempt by the Osage people to keep evil at bay. Of course, the audience is aware that Ernest and Hale are the “evils” here. Technically, it is all Hale, as Ernest is basically a spineless puppet who does his uncle’s bidding. The roles of the uncle and nephew are played by two of the most widely popular actors you could possibly imagine: Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. But they are not given an iota of heroic moments by Marty in this narrative. Ernest’s nativity and greedy nature make him utterly despicable. Hale joking about the string lights and laughing at the Osage people makes you want to skin him alive.
Very rarely do I use the term “masterpiece” to describe a movie, but Killers of the Flower Moon probably deserves to be called that. It is almost three and a half hours long, but not a single minute of it comes off as unnecessary, which I consider to be a monumental achievement. If I have to be honest, I was not a fan of the last Scorsese movie, The Irishman. Finishing the gangster epic was quite a daunting task. I found it to be extremely self-indulgent. In fact, most of Scorsese’s post 2000 works, including the Academy Award-winning The Departed (2006), had the same set of issues. But Killers of the Flower Moon finally looks like the kind of movie Marty used to make, which made him the legend that he is today. It is a story of gigantic importance, told with a lot of precision and care.
Looking at how flawless this movie is, it is hard to imagine that it was actually supposed to be a much different movie. DiCaprio was initially cast as Tom White, the FBI detective, who is ultimately played by Jesse Plemons in the movie. But the actor urged Marty to play Ernest instead, which eventually led Marty to tell the story from the perspective of the Osage people instead of a White savior outside. And what a decision it turned out to be, after all! Because this story should have always been about the endurance of the Osage people instead of the cruelty of Americans like William Hale. Despite being set more than a hundred years ago from our time (1920 is the year where the story kicks off), the central themes of Killers of the Flower Moon are still very relevant. People are still getting exploited all over the world. Evil men like Ernest and Hale are still out there, in large numbers, and are doing harm to this world in every possible way. Men are still scheming against their wealthy wives, leading to dire consequences. And the worst of all, people are still slow-poisoning their spouses to death for wealth and various other reasons. The thing here is that greed, the tendency to manipulate, and lying in order to come across as good are all basic human characteristics. The world will never be free of all that, no matter what. Scorsese’s movie sheds light on a horrific chapter of American history, but it also aims to be a conversation starter. Many scenes in Killers of the Flower Moon actually have people participating in seemingly normal activities like dining while casually plotting sinister things against people who are sitting at the same table. The way Hale throws around his authority by literally making people call him “King”, despite being nothing more than a caretaker of the Osage money, is equally frustrating and horrifying to watch.
What I thought was particularly impressive was the way Marty shows evil exactly as it is, without a shred of coolness to justify it with. Both De Niro and DiCaprio play their part brilliantly, I must say. Another great move by Scorsese has to be casting someone like Jesse Plemons as the guy who finally manages to catch the uncle and nephew duo, along with all their associates. Plemons, inarguably one of the best-working actors of our time, has the right kind of face to play “everyman” characters who could be either good or bad. The actor plays the part in a particular way, so that he never becomes the main character of the final act. Plemons treats it like just a man trying to do his job, and the result is absolutely terrific. Of course, Scorsese and Eric Roth’s pitch-perfect screenplay has a lot to do with that. What it also does is allow Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhurt to be the face of all the Osage people. Gladstone, a supremely talented native American actor whose most prominent role was playing the rancher Jamie in Kelly Richard’s fantastic Certain Women (2016), manages to steal the show even from the likes of De Niro and DiCaprio. She brings a lot of compassion, love, and empathy to playing Mollie, along with much-needed resilience. The character works as the beating heart of the movie, and the moment of conscience Ernest has during the fag end of the movie mostly happens because of the love he has for Mollie. Killers of the Flower Moon is essentially Mollie’s story, which is only confirmed by Scorsese himself in the very last scene of the movie. Mollie’s obituary completely ignoring Ernest is a huge win for the character and the audience, which would only root for her.
If you can remember, it was Anna Paquin who had the most impactful presence in The Irishman, in spite of stalwarts like De Niro and Al Pacino. With Killers of the Flower Moon, it seems like Scorsese is making it a point to give female characters the reins in his stories. I consider that to be a great thing, especially in a world that still reeks of the smell of patriarchy. And if we speak solely in the context of cinema, we are at a time when we are bombarded with sequels, remakes, and genre movies typically made to make money. Of course, the likes of A24 Studios have emerged as worthy opponents, but they are also dangerously close to following the same path. At a time like this, an eighty year old man coming up with a story like Killers of the Flower Moon does have huge importance. So much, that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Marty the savior of cinema, for the time being.