The emotional elements of “Killers of the Flower Moon” are as large and majestic as the Oklahoma landscape that serves as the background for the film. Just like the gentle topography of the land, there are no massive emotional peaks or valleys. It all just unfolds with a gentle rise and fall that pays respect to the land and the Osage people.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is set in 1920s Oklahoma and depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation. The land given to the tribe was supposed to be worthless, but the discovery of oil changed everything. Instant wealth gave the Osage Nation opportunities but also attracted those who wanted to swindle them out of their fortunes.
An endless string of brutal crimes eventually gets the attention of the Federal government. Investigations of the murders became one of the first major cases for the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Director Martin Scorsese’s original plan was to focus on the investigation with Leo DiCaprio taking on the role of FBI agent Tom White. The passion Scorsese felt for the book on which the movie is based and the Osage people made him eventually change the primary focus to the relationship between returning war veteran Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone).
It is a complicated relationship as Ernest truthfully has feelings for Mollie but he is being manipulated by his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), who wants him to marry Mollie so they can inherit her oil rights. Ernest finds himself between loyalty to his uncle and his wife.
Focusing on the relationship before getting to the investigation gave DiCaprio one of his more complicated and beautifully acted roles to date. He goes smoothly from being a loving husband to being involved with criminal activities. His scenes with Gladstone are at times joyous and then heartbreaking. It is one of the most underplayed performances by DiCaprio while being one of his most powerful.
The key for Scorsese was to never push any of his actors. Even De Niro, who can become lost in his roles, plays Hale as both a businessman to be feared and respected. It is only when the truth comes out that his dark side is finally revealed but De Niro plays the character with grace and force from start to finish.
Not enough good can be said about Gladstone. She had the nearly impossible task of bringing a regalness to the role that slowly slips away as her health deteriorates. She manages to have an extremely expressive face while maintaining an almost stoic approach.
All of the good acting can be credited to Scorsese as he created an epic version of the book by David Grann of the same name. He was willing to allow the film to run more than three and a half hours to make no scene ever feel rushed. It is a lengthy film but is so engaging it never feels bloated or extended.
The film is such a dramatic difference from the frantic tone the veteran director used to create “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “The Departed.” And he opted not to use the kind of narration he has used in previous works. There are times when the actors are speaking the Osage language and there is no closed captioning. The film is so well constructed that such an approach was not necessary as it is easy to tell what each person is saying and thinking.
The relationship Di Nero, DiCaprio and Scorsese have forged through numerous projects together is displayed in every scene. The actors and directors are confident enough with their working together to know that a great script and on-target performances will make for powerful moments even if they are presented with a quiet hand.
There is not enough room to talk about all of the potential Oscar nominations that should be heaped on this film from acting to writing to cinematography. It all comes together to form an artistry that is another success in the success-filled careers of Scorsese, De Niro and DiCaprio.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R for language, grizzly images, violence
Running time: 216 minutes.