Martin Scorsese is unquestionably one of our great American filmmakers. But why does he have to make all his films so damn long? The Wolf of Wall Street was 3 hours long. The Irishman was 3 and a half! And now comes Killers of the Flower Moon, which also clocks in around 3 and half. I have nothing against a long movie if the subject matter and story require it (think The Godfather, Part II or Seven Samurai), but none of these movies needs to be this long. Killers of the Flower Moon is a great story that should be told, and I am glad that audiences may learn this tragic part of American history by seeing it, but I wonder how many people may not be willing to sit through such a long film to get to that lesson?
DiCaprio and DeNiro, a couple of Scorsese’s faves, are the big stars that will no doubt draw the audience, but Native American actress Lily Gladstone is the standout in the film. She plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family are at the center of the story. One by one they all die, one way or another. It’s a pattern that is all too common in Oklahoma at the time. The Osage Nation had been run off their lands by the US government and resettled on what they thought was a worthless plot of scrub. But then they struck oil and became the richest people per capita in the world. So of course hordes of white men came to town hoping to take advantage of the situation, and the Osage “mysterious” death rate went though the roof.
At the start of the film, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) arrives in town. Just back from serving in WW I, he’s come to his uncle looking for work. His Uncle William Hale (DeNiro) is a powerful man. He plays at being community minded and a good friend to the Osage, but he’s really the evil mastermind behind a wide-ranging conspiracy to kill them and steal their wealth. And Ernest becomes his willing conspirator, marrying Mollie and all the while plotting her family’s demise, understanding that as each of them dies, she inherits their fortunes. While he seems to really love her, he doesn’t question his orders to mix a new drug into her insulin, which slowly brings her to the brink of death.
This is a true story, based on a bestselling book of the same name. The names are of the real people. At the time, Hale had the local town under his thumb, including the police, the doctors who were prescribing drugs that slowly killed many of the women, and the coroner who just happened to lose any forensic evidence that might prove the murders. In a lot of ways this is a mid-western gang flick. Hale had his boys out doing his dirty business while he sat home in his mansion pulling the strings. That is until a little known man in DC named J. Edgar Hoover finally sent someone down to see what was going on.
It is definitely a fascinating story. And I can see why Scorsese would be attracted to telling it. But it could easily be an hour shorter. There are way too many repetitive bits and scenes that don’t really add to the narrative. And I think it might have been better (gasp!) with two other male leads. DeNiro never seems to fit into the place and DiCaprio gives his role no depth whatsoever. Still Lily Gladstone steals the show whenever she’s on screen. And it is beautifully shot. I also appreciate that the Osage language is used in many key scenes. I do have one big quibble about it though. This is a story about an Indigenous woman told entirely from a white man’s perspective. Sadly, Killers of the Flower Moon ends up being a good film worth seeing, not a great film to be reseen.
It’s in theaters now and will be streaming on Apple TV+ exclusively at a later undisclosed date.