Monday, February 5, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today's subject is a doozy, Martin Scorsese's latest (and longest) film, Killers of the Flower Moon.  Adapted from David Grann's non-fiction book and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert Deniro (together onscreen for the first time in 30 years), KOTFM chronicles an appalling series of murders of members of the Osage tribe, who stumbled onto a massive Oklahoma oil supply in the 1920s, quickly drawing the attention of white opportunists.  Chief among them was William King Hale, a cattle baron and political boss who ingratiated himself with the tribe and inserted his dimwitted nephew Ernest Burkhardt as a benefactor by convincing him to marry into the family.  Hale and others then proceeded to consolidate the tribe's exorbitant wealth by killing off several members so more and more of the headrights (shares of the oil estate) would go to Ernest and his brother Byron in the event of their Osage wives' death.  The film chronicles one of the most shameful episodes in American history, as Hale and his accomplices commit these atrocities in plain sight, knowing that the systemic racism in place at the time would shield them from consequences.  
Oddly the trailers for the film make it look like DiCaprio's character is the protagonist, and while he's certainly onscreen the most, he's far from a sympathetic character.  Leo all but disappears under the makeup, playing Ernest as a boorish simpleton, who genuinely seems to love his wife Mollie but is too stupid to see how evil are his actions toward her and her family.  Deniro plays Hale as a cross between his usual Scorsese gangsters and a jocular Max Cady, orchestrating ghastly crimes against humanity with the smile of a cold politician.  But despite sharing the screen with two all-time heavyweights, Lily Gladstone shines as the film's standout, playing Mollie as a woman who's sharp enough to know her family is being taken advantage of, but naive enough to think Ernest will actually protect her.

KOTFM's setting may be far from the usual Scorsese gangster fare, but it often feels like a spiritual cousin to Goodfellas or Casino, giving us an intimate portrait of these evil men and their unchecked reign of terror.  Once the Bureau of Investigation gets involved (these incidents led directly to the birth of the FBI), the parallels between the William King Hales and the Jimmy Conways of the world become quite clear.  As illustrated in The Wolf of Wall Street, organized crime needn't just be about narcotics and gunfire.

But Scorsese is also holding up a much-needed mirror to this country's history of race-related atrocities and the system that allowed them go to unpunished for far too long; Hale and his conspirators commit murder casually and thoughtlessly, as though their victims were farm animals.  Their bigotry is so intense it never seems to occur to them that what they're doing is a crime.  The film also references the Tulsa Massacre, another reprehensible event that took place around the same time and was forgotten for decades.  That neither of these incidents is a mandatory inclusion in high school history classes is a travesty.  

With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese has added yet another riveting (if a tad overlong) entry to arguably the greatest filmography any director has ever assembled.  Led by a trio of strong performances and aided by painstakingly authentic period detail, the film is an excellently made document; an exhibit supporting the argument for cinema as one of society's great historical educators.  If public education has failed to make students adequately aware of the horrors of institutional racism in America, perhaps it's up to filmmakers to set the record straight.

I give KOTFM **** out of ****.

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