Smarter people than me love Killers of the Flower Moon. I am a dumb idiot who thought it was a chore.
Often when I dislike something that brilliant critics love, I read their explanations and think “Oh, right. That is a great point. Maybe I misjudged things.” Here, my reaction has been “We both watched the same movie, right?”
Because I do not get it. Like, at all.
You know how theater directors will do a Shakespeare play but place it in a modern setting? Like, it’s “The Tempest” but at The Fyre Festival. Killers is a repeat of every Martin Scorsese mob movie, except the mafia wears cowboy hats. This costume change has been heralded as some masterstroke of genius or an inspired commentary and reflection on his body of work. Because they wear different hats…
Set a few years after World War I, and given recent events maybe 100 years before World War III, this is based on another true story of white people finding inventive ways to inflict heinous cruelty on Native Americans. Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a half-moron who becomes the lead thug for his corrupt uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). King wants to acquire the oil-rich land that the Osage people own. He plans to do this by convincing Ernest to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and then killing Mollie’s mom and sisters.
For over 200 minutes, we stay centered on the stupid villains as they unleash unholy havoc on the Osage tribe. They shoot them, blow them up, and poison them. It is a moral necessity that we remember, elevate, and narratively share the atrocities of the past so that we can not only avoid them in the future but so that those still suffering remain seen and heard. Insofar as Killers does that, I can see the praise.
Scorsese’s obsessions return us to the same thematic places we’ve been time and time and time again in his work. Again, we see the “agony of the snitch” and efforts to flip informants. Again, we see DiCaprio doing stupid things with his face. An underbite isn’t a magnificent and nuanced performance, Leo. He’s the same twitchy douchebag from Wolf of Wall Street but in a Stetson. Wow! Again, De Niro is a creepy, selfish kingpin. His performance here is being praised for its restraint, which is both fair and also a pretty low bar. Gladstone has received universal praise. No argument here.
The best performer spends more than half the extensive running time relegated to being sick and delirious in bed. It’s fine that she barely speaks throughout, as her character’s economy of words is well-established and reasoned. Plus, she can do more with her expression, posture, and breath than previous Oscar winners have done with the juiciest of verbose monologues. It is far less than fine that she disappears for long stretches and that she is given one (1) single scene in which we see her process her husband’s betrayal. We get 10,000% more scenes of Leo and De Niro reconciling their relationship. This is their movie, not Gladstone’s. And not for her lack of effort.
Because, yet again, Scorsese is obsessed with showing us the same range regarding the same subject from the same performers he has used time and again. Is it really a different message here because the mafia’s victims are Native Americans? Maybe it could have been. Because the film pops every time they actually, legitimately center the Osage traditions and people, granting them agency instead of talking about, playing, and replaying their murders. The effort to be respectful is clear, this wasn’t callous. But it is just so nakedly obvious that this is authenticity as acquired through advisors. To be clear, reports have described how the film was reworked by tribal leaders at various points in the production. To be clearer: Those names don’t appear under the writing or directing credits.
Being bound by real events means things can’t be reworked to make it so that a tribe member “cracks the case.” But what is the value in watching the story from the perspective of the soft-brained malcontents harming indigenous peoples? At no point is any Osage even shown to be suspicious of King. Only other white folks explicitly figure it out. Mollie’s trip to Washington while being actively poisoned is the catalyst for the resolution, and yet they give her journey all of five minutes in a three-and-a-half-hour movie.
It is not the length itself but the allocation of resources here that is so exhausting. I don’t care about watching DiCaprio twitch and sneer repeatedly. I do not care about hearing De Niro make mumble-mouthed threats. I do not care about Scorsese showing up in a cameo so that we know for a fact that he is very sincere in his efforts to memorialize the real Mollie.
Killers of the Flower Moon resembles respect for the Osage more than it embodies it.
If it was the movie that everyone else apparently saw, in which the concerns of the tribe are centered and the buffoonery of the white devils reveals some new insights, I’d have loved it. To this dumb idiot, this is just another cartoon DiCaprio performance in another slow-paced Scorsese mob movie. It exhausted me more than excited me.
But hey, I liked it a lot more than Oppenheimer.
Grade = C
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Hoai-Tran Bui at Inverse says “Killers of the Flower Moon is an American master putting his stamp on a slice of forgotten Americana. It’s Scorsese using the associations we have with him — the director of pow-bang gangster movies and glamorous crime capers — to render an epic tragedy all the more sweeping, intimate, and urgent. It may not be a call to arms, but it is a silent, mournful scream.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “It is not enough for us to look back on the past. We must interrogate it rigorously. Scorsese has done so with Killers of the Flower Moon, looking not only at what happened but also how it was handled by the powers of government and media. Through his lens of the coward Ernest Burkhart, Scorsese demystifies the crime and its crafters, revealing them to be craven and callous killers, never as clever as they esteemed themselves to be.”
Siddhant Adlakha at IGN says “It’s one of Scorsese’s most brutal films, yet one of his most thoughtful and self-reflexive, as he crafts a subversive murder “mystery” that leaves no lingering questions save for one. It’s a question that defines the tide of American history: Just how far are people willing to go for greed?”