Killers of the Flower Moon revolves around the Osage Nation murders in the early 20th century. A more conventional film would focus on Jesse Plemons as Tom White, a BOI agent sent to investigate the case. Actually, the Osage murders were briefly touched upon in 1959’s The FBI Story, which cast James Stewart as the hero. Although Tom White is the most heroic figure in Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, he isn’t the protagonist. Scorsese has always excelled in unearthing the layers of deeply flawed, often unsympathetic men. Ernest Burkhart is among the most pathetic figures that Scorsese has tackled. The decision to tell this story from his perspective is what makes the film so engrossing, however.
Leonardo DiCaprio might not strike you as a pathetic individual. DiCaprio sheds his usually confident exterior to play the spineless Ernest, who returns from war to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale presents himself as an ally of the Osage Nation, which amassed a fortune through their land’s oil. In reality, Hale swindles and murders his way to headrights with a chessboard of fellow criminals at his disposal. Among Hale’s pawns is Ernest, who is drawn to a wealthy Osage member named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). This is a magnetic breakthrough from Gladstone, who’s won over by Ernest’s devilish charm. The devil part should be emphasized, however.
Ernest is still just a minion of the true devil, his uncle and father figure. De Niro is one of the most commanding actors of any generation. He’s intimidating as Hale, but not in the way you might expect. He rarely raises his voice, playing Hale with a calm, soft-spoken demeanor that’s almost inviting. Behind his grandfatherly appearance, there’s a ruthless animal who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. DiCaprio is equally skillful at playing a two-faced thug who isn’t very bright, but is crafty enough to fox his way into the henhouse.
Hale encourages his nephew to marry Mollie so that he can inherit her family’s money (sooner than later). Although Ernest says that he loves Mollie, his greed and loyalty to his uncle come first. Mollie is far from the only victim. As her family and tribe members start turning up dead, the local authorities don’t lift a finger. The case doesn’t gain traction until Tom White and his fellow agents show up with J. Edgar Hoover looking to make a name for the Bureau. Strange to think that DiCaprio previously played Hoover.
It isn’t until White starts gathering evidence that Ernest considers doing the right thing. Whether or not Ernest follows through, history will still remember him as a bad guy. Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t a redemption or white savior story. It isn’t a murder mystery either with most of the main characters being co-conspirators. Rather, Scorsese delivers a frank look at an irrefutable injustice that has tragically gone overlooked for nearly a century.
It’s beautifully shot, exquisitely acted, and – like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – manages to fly by despite its super-sized runtime. Some directors have one epic in them. Scorsese has made three in a row with Silence, The Irishman, and now this. And to think, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg that is his illustrious filmography. Time will only tell where Killers of the Flower Moon ranks, but it’s every bit as arresting as the best films of Scorsese’s career.