The word comes out of Lily Gladstone’s mouth quietly, and straightforwardly enough, with a hint of disdain: “incompetent.”
This is how Gladstone’s character, Mollie Burkhart of the Osage Nation of northern Oklahoma, identifies herself by law, when asked by her banker to state her name and her status as full-blooded Osage. At that time in the early 1920s, in the place brought to life by director and co-writer Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the word “incompetent” meant that as an Osage, she could not manage her affairs on her own. She needed a white guardian to manage her family’s newfound oil wealth.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The white residents of the area seethed with envy when all that crude oil came flying up out of the Osage ground. There’s a line from David Grann’s book of the same title — I wish it were in the screenplay — quoting Osage chief Wah-Ti-An-Kah, after his people have been run out of Kansas in the 1870s and have relocated to what is now Osage County, Oklahoma. The area’s rocky hills should be to the Osage Nation’s benefit, he said at the time: “White man cannot put iron thing in ground here.” The imagery is blunt, invasive, practically sexual. And, as history had it, untrue. They could, and did, and so did the Osage.
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” both Grann’s enraging 2017 nonfiction book and Scorsese’s substantially recentered dramatization, charts an awful, incrementally brutal course. We know who’s doing what to whom straight off in the movie; in the book, author Grann strategically withheld more information while reserving much of his narrative for the early years of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The book focused on one agent in particular, Tom White, who led the case that solved the mystery of so many dozens of murdered or “disappeared” Osage.
The film, imperfect, a little saggy in its middle hour but remarkable in so many ways, doesn’t invest fully enough in Mollie, or in Gladstone, without whom this $200 million project would be unthinkable.
Scorsese has rendered a tragic, forlorn piece of American history, indebted equally to classical Hollywood craftsmanship and the director’s own obsessions with honor, guilt, family, criminal codes and America’s centuries of greedy bloodshed. It’s Scorsese’s first Western, shot on location after a crucial rewrite by Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth essentially saved the movie from itself. “Killers of the Flower Moon” isn’t dealing with revisionist history. It’s history, period, fictionalized (of course; it’s not a documentary) but hewing pretty close to the historical record.
Back from kitchen duty during the Great War, Ernest Burkhart — played with sly gradations of moral rot by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his best performances — is taken under the wing of his uncle William “King” Hale, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Hale has done well for himself. Friendly, paternalistic, full of secrets, he’s like an Oklahoma Babbitt of small-town boosterism, a friend to the Osage (he’s learned their language, at least). “Kindly people,” he tells Ernest. But “sickly.”
Soon enough Hale takes the role of matchmaker, urging Ernest, working as a chauffeur, into courting Mollie. She controls her family’s oil headrights; that oil money, in due course, will flow to Ernest and his kin. Early in Scorsese’s dazzlingly fluid first hour, Gladstone’s Mollie is heard in voice-over as several Osage deaths enter the books. She speaks in the tones of someone who knows there’s a conspiracy afoot, and the audience knows it, too.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour film — the length feels right, and necessary — the facets of that conspiracy, and Hale’s puppet-mastering, work like tributaries feeding a big, bloody river. FBI agent White (Jesse Plemons) enters the film around the two-thirds point; Plemons is unerringly well cast, and it’s a rightly contained performance.
DiCaprio, lest we forget, is both a first-class actor and a big star, and as the lazy bum who, the film suggests, really did love Mollie, he never plays for our sympathy. He’s a weak man in thrall of his uncle, and while it’s a low bar humanity-wise, Ernest eventually faces a test of his will as the film morphs into a courtroom drama.
If there’s a weak link, it’s De Niro, and I’m still trying to figure out why. “Flower Moon” marks the 10th feature he and Scorsese have done together, a half-century since “Mean Streets.” (For Scorsese and DiCaprio, this is film No. 6.) As this true crime story’s godfather figure, De Niro’s a few decades older than the real, 1920s-era Hale, which matters not much. Effectively, and often amusingly, he goes for the man’s surface charm and shifty concern for his Osage neighbors. The Okie dialect, well, it comes and goes. I wonder if Hale needed more of a natural bundle of rough-hewed contradictions to fully activate and complicate the role.
As for Gladstone, this hardly represents her breakout success. She broke out in my book years ago, at least as far back as Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women” (2016). Gladstone’s deep, mellow, expressive voice, for example, is not like anything else in movies today. Her sense of detachment, and amused, wised-up perspective: also singular. Mollie, by the dictates of Roth and Scorsese’s adaptation, comes and goes as a central figure. But when she gets the screen time she plainly deserve, it’s grave, often bleak but emotionally powerful magic.
In one scene, Mollie and Ernest dine together in her home, and a rainstorm comes through. “We need to be quiet for a while,” she tells her talkative, uneasily scheming husband-to-be. Scorsese handles the scene just so, letting his brilliant production designer Jack Fisk’s setting establish the mood. Scorsese, too, especially since “Silence” (2016) and “The Irishman” (2019), has quieted his technique. He doesn’t move the camera as often now, or the way he used to.
In “Flower Moon” he’s consciously drawing from a different set of influences, namely John Ford and Howard Hawks, and idiosyncratic low-budget Westerns such as Robert Wise’s film noir-flecked “Blood on the Moon.” (See that if you haven’t.) “Flower Moon” initially developed a script with DiCaprio playing the FBI agent, and the Osage characters left to their own devices in the background. Then DiCaprio suggested he play Ernest instead. More to play there, more ambiguities and weaknesses. The shift and the resulting revisions seem to have done the job.
Should Scorsese have gone further to recenter the story around Mollie? Yes. But we are, at least, a long way from the patronizing “Dances With Wolves,” which won the best picture Oscar even as it treated the First Nation characters surrounding Kevin Costner as pretty pictures, not quite people. What Scorsese has done here walks a fine line between the conspirators and the victims of this historical tragedy. The latter don’t quite get their due, but the whole of “Flower Moon” makes for a very full experience nonetheless.
The Osage murders made the newspapers, the newsreels — Scorsese and the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker do exquisite work re-creating Movietone footage of the Osage oil boom — and in 1926 became a hoked-up silent feature (“Tragedies of the Osage Hills,” presumed lost). On the radio years later, the tragedy was remade into the kind of triumph-of-the-FBI yarn “Flower Moon” nearly fell for itself.
I love a lot of this movie, partly because it acknowledges its place in the mythology chain. Scorsese himself takes a cameo role in the radio broadcast finale, and it’s oddly affecting; he’s joining the timeline of pop-cultural treatments of painful American history. His movie is a lavish, big-budget period picture, old-school in its set-building and packed, teeming frames of extras in period-perfect clothes.
It’s more, though: It’s a story of terrible injustice and who got away with what, for years and years. “Flower Moon” isn’t rigged for slow reveals or conventional thrills, violent as much of it may be. (You can’t believe everything you see in a movie’s trailer.) At heart, it’s a compelling elegy for the Osage who ended up “just barely living out a sundown,” as one character puts it — thanks to so many respectable killers afoot in the land of the free.
‘KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON’
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for violence, some grisly images and language)
Running time: 3:26
How to watch: In theaters Friday