Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

The last temptation of Marty

Killers of the Flower Moon is a Martin Scorsese film. I know you already know this, but even if you didn’t, it would be obvious: The film bears all the hallmarks of the great director. In fact, this is too much of a Scorsese film, leaning on his storytelling muscle memory even when it results in an unfocused, slightly stale final product.

Scorsese’s twenty-sixth feature film is what you might call a “deeply flawed gem” or alternately an “incredibly watchable misfire.” It has some terrific strengths and some backbreaking weaknesses such that no one rating feels quite right.

The stuff that Scorsese is historically great at is just as good as we’d expect it to be, and that starts with his direction of the acting. This is a deep and compelling ensemble. Its highlight is Lily Gladstone, who gives a performance that is winning a bunch of awards and will be a strong contender for the Best Actress Oscar. I daresay she actually deserves the praise, reining in the film’s excesses and thematic confusion with a deeply sympathetic and human character that should have been even more the center of the film.

The violence is harrowingly abrupt and rib-crunching. Explosions rattle and gunshots fly. Fraternity and murder mingle jarringly close together: Even when you know it’s coming, the quick shift from calm to bloody still throws you off guard. It reflects a scenario of exploitation and betrayal, loved ones committing treachery to get some of that oil money in their pockets.

The recurring violence has the deliberate effect of gradually normalizing evil committed by Ernest (Leonard DiCaprio) and William (Robert De Niro). The upshot of centering the film on these two characters is that the audience becomes just as numb to the ongoing cruelty as these ostensible protagonists.

It also is an outright triumph of production: That rumored $200 million budget shows up in the incredible sets and costuming and old west vibes. The cast is huge and all the effects are either practical or so cleverly designed and well-executed they may as well be practical.

So the film has some incredible raw power to it, but the structure and length of the film are a chore. The film is so scattershot, a lot of great ingredients in desperate need of a recipe. Instead of finding and developing a specific voice and flavor, Scorsese defaults to making the narrative a de facto gangster film even when that is rather obviously a suboptimal way to tell this story.

The heart of Killers of the Flower Moon is, or rather should be, the complicated relationship between Earnest and Mollie (Gladstone), but Gladstone somehow gets about a third as many scenes as De Niro’s kingpin performing the same plot beat quite literally dozens of times. Meanwhile, Earnest is such a lame character as presented, a spineless simpleton only feinting towards any sort of depth a handful of times (like the excellent final exchange between the couple). As a result, both DiCaprio and De Niro wear out their welcome: DiCaprio’s transformed look and tics can’t salvage life from the flat character; De Niro’s swagger stops being an interesting contrast and starts being one-note.

The other obvious angle into the story is the FBI investigation of the murders, which offer not only the inherent cat-and-mouse tension, but a more sociological look at how exposing that evil unspooled the colonial social order of Osage Nation. But Scorsese has little patience for this thread: though Jesse Plemons does great work as the lead investigator, most of it happens off-screen. When Earnest and William get arrested, I was taken aback, because it seemed like the investigation was just starting to cook.

And so with two really compelling ways to tackle the Osage Indian murders, Scorsese instead takes the third route of making it about the rise and fall of the criminal enterprise murdering and extorting the Indians. On paper, it’s a compelling pitch, a wild west GoodFellas in which Mollie’s community is methodically killed and pillaged of their rightful wealth. But there’s not enough meat there for it to be a great mob arc, and hasn’t Scorsese told variations of this story a bunch of times already anyways?

The end result tries to be a little bit of everything, and as a result is not too much of anything. Whatever it is, boy is there a lot of it: 206 minutes, a length that would get most other directors laughed out of the room. Thelma Schoonmaker doesn’t help too much, offering a strangely cadenced product that waffles on what to emphasize and whose perspective to take.

Despite all that, it’s still Scorsese making the final product. It’s nowhere near a full-blown masterpiece that Scorsese made at his peak, but the DNA is there. Too much of the big picture stuff is fumbled, and a lot of the good moments are just Scorsese “greatest hits” (there’s even an obvious riff on the “Layla” paranoid murder spree from GoodFellas), but every now and again it leaves you speechless (starting, but not ending, with the oil rain dance right at the beginning). So it’s still pretty objectively a good film, watchable and engaging and rich. But it’s so painfully shapeless and overworked, so underwhelming as a complete package, that I can’t help but be a bit disappointed.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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2 replies on “Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)”

I was a little warmer on it, but I fundamentally agree that it’s too long and too diffuse. And Leo was miscast.

I thought it made an excellent slow-burn horror movie, though I do agree that it doesn’t always make the most of it’s strengths (One definately felt that things took a turn for the better when the FBI investigation kicked off, but I’m not sure those scenes would have had so much impact if the film hadn’t fooled us into thinking these sum******* would keep getting away with it until an ending even bleaker than the one we got to see).

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