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  • Benjamin May

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Review

Some films warrant long runtimes. Epics like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Das Boot’ are both over three hours in length, and rocket along at a brisk pace, largely because of fastidious editing. The duration of both those pictures is necessary, one could argue, to tell their stories without sacrificing details, coherence or excitement. Then, there are films like ‘Heaven’s Gate,’ which also has a runtime of over three hours, and is a bloated, self-indulgent and unaffecting watch thanks to director Michael Cimino’s arrogant refusal to cut anything.

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ teeters somewhere between both camps. It has elements deserving of high praise, but is inarguably too long, with pacing, structural and narrative issues galore. Based on the non-fiction novel of the same name by David Grann, the film centers on Emmet Burkhart, a simple-minded World War I Veteran who returns to The Osage Nation, to the home of his uncle William King Hale. There, Emmet falls for an Osage named Mollie, who- his uncle tells him- is set to inherit much of her people’s oil headrights. Meanwhile, someone is killing off the wealthy Osage in the area; and it looks like Mollie’s family might be next.

On paper, it sounds like a fascinating, exciting picture, with dashes of psychological intrigue. However, Scorsese’s version of the tale is dour, swollen and predictable. Grann’s riveting story is transformed into a formulaic meditation on moral corruption and greed, lacking any kind of suspense or momentum. Screenwriters Scorsese and Eric Roth cram too much into the narrative- namely too many characters and unnecessary scenes leading to redundant dialogue and vice versa. They have to scrabble to end proceedings neatly; which they don’t do, preferring to hastily sum up events rather than let them play out.

Had Scorsese and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker been more active in the editing booth, things could have been different. There are some brilliant sequences in the movie, in fact, the first third is engaging and intriguing. The mystery is successfully set up, the location established and the characters introduced, then things start going downhill. The pacing slows to a crawl for the remainder of the runtime; until the end, of course, when it rushes to its sloppy conclusion. Beyond pacing, there are some fundamental flaws editing-wise that are inexplicable, considering Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s prestige.

For example, seemingly important characters are introduced, then disappear for long stretches of time. Similarly, the fate of some characters is either driven home multiple times, or overlooked; leaving us in the dark. Furthermore, at times, cuts occur just as someone is opening their mouth to speak. All this- including the fact that the runtime could have easily been trimmed by forty minutes without negatively affecting the narrative- is amateur work; far below Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s level.

This is not to say, however, that ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is without redeeming elements. To make a film about cultural appropriation is always a just cause worthy of commendation, no matter its effectiveness. Scorsese should also be applauded for trying something new- although he fails to deliver a compelling or insightful story about the exploitation of the Osage people. The film doesn’t explore the historical or cultural context of the Osage Nation, nor the psychological and emotional impact of the murders on the survivors.

Scorsese and Roth’s narrative also fails to challenge the stereotypes and prejudices that the white characters have towards the Osage, or the systemic injustice that they face. Their characterisation lacks depth or nuance, relying on familiar tropes and cliched attitudes. Had he focused on the perspective and agency of the Osage, rather than the corrupt, inept white characters; Scorsese could have had a masterpiece on his hands.

Conversely, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is evocative and enchanting. It makes for a stunning watch, proving Scorsese’s eye for visuals has not been blinded. Under Scorsese’s direction, Prieto captures the beauty and brutality of the Oklahoma landscape astutely, while Jack Fisk’s detailed production design lends proceedings authenticity and textural richness; which Adam Willis’s set decoration and Jacqueline West’s costume design only compounds.

Moreover, the late, great Robbie Robertson’s score is striking, bearing a resemblance to the work of Ry Cooder. Full of sleazy slide guitars and Indian chants, it complements the narrative perfectly. The inclusion of period-accurate songs also lends the movie a dose of realism, which- in the times of Baz Luhrmann, who insists on bizarrely using modern music in period pieces- is most welcome. The last project Robertson worked on before his death; his contribution to the picture acts as a powerful swansong.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Emmet, alongside Lily Gladstone as Mollie and Robert DeNiro as King Hale. DiCaprio has the ability to turn in brilliant performances, but here takes a page out of the Daniel Day Lewis playbook: the most intense acting must surely be the best. DiCaprio spends the whole film frowning, scrunching his mouth up and completely overdoing his character’s expressions and eccentricities. In the first third, he has a bit of range; though for the latter two thirds gives a tonally one note performance.

As does Lily Gladstone. Initially, she creates in Mollie a nuanced and witty character, who can see through people. She doesn’t suffer fools, and we find her both compelling and captivating. However, after the first third of the film, she becomes subservient, unquestioning and dull- and all this before there are medicinal reasons for her being, shall we say, slowed down. DeNiro, for his part, plays King Hale like an evil George Burns: manipulative, darkly funny and morally bereft. Anytime he’s on screen, the film is a joy; he’s the best thing about it.

They are supported by a large cast of talented actors, some of whom do great work. Ty Mitchell is excellent as John, a poor man drawn into Emmet and King Hale’s plans, who has more dignity then the both of them combined. Jesse Plemons does typically fine work as FBI man Tom White, while Louis Cancelmi is seedily slick as Kelsie Morrison, a stooge of King Hale’s. On the other hand, the likes of Cara Jade Myers- as Mollie's alcoholic sister- and Brendan Fraser- in a thankfully small role as King Hale's lawyer- are both so miscast and over the top, they distract from everything going on around them.

It’s a sad indictment of a film when its central message was summed up more succinctly in a Dean Martin song (The Money Song) from 1948: “Them that have it, get more of it. The less they need it, the more they love it.” Such is the thesis of the film: greed spreads like a plague, and the richer you are, the greedier you are. It’s not original, nor is it profound: this very same tale was told much more impactfully back in 1959, in Mervyn LeRoy’s ‘The FBI Story.’

At the end of the day, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is a truncated adaptation of a great non-fiction book, overlong and devoid of any original or meaningful message. Despite its stellar cinematography, evocative score and a few powerful performances, Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is an underwhelming disappointment.


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