Sunday, October 29, 2023


There’s a storm on the plains. Thunder and lightening rumble in the distance. Rain drops on the farmhouse in a steady drumbeat. The white man (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes to close a window. The indigenous woman (Lily Gladstone) stops him. The storm is powerful, she tells him. Give it your attention. It must be paid respect. And so they sit, she meditatively, he uncomfortably, as the rain falls. The sound fills the empty spaces in their awkward conversation, their fumbling flirtation. It’s a simple scene, and yet a key to understanding Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Here’s a movie about a metaphorical storm of violence and conspiracy and desire running through an Oklahoma community in the early 20th century. It gives us space to understand the conditions that created it, and the lasting consequences of it. The setting on the last bleeding vestiges of a wild west finds the moment when horses were traded for cars, fields for oil wells, and bartering for bank accounts. It’s a film about the transition, about beginnings and endings and who gets to lay claim to the land, and to the stories about it. Scorsese, always a director sharply interrogating human fallibility, fragility, and fearsome self-justification, here finds a moral righteousness driving underneath a knowing, provocative, and enveloping complexity. He finds the most staggering shifts of history sit squarely in the pressures of relationships and gestures.

It is a movie about real evil. It paints a damming portrait of the queasy intimate violence of greed and prejudice that built many a wealth in this country. It’s based a true story of an all-American evil—systematic murders in the early 20th century that chip away at the Osage tribe’s rights to Oklahoman oil money. We see a vibrant indigenous community living socially and economically intertwined with a rising white working class of maids and drivers and cooks and farmhands and bootleggers—and the wealthy white grifters rising to take advantage of them all. The wide frame, with ensembles in vintage attire and convincing locale looking for all the world like D.W. Griffith or John Ford had been building classical blocking in CinemaScope from day one, bustles with this activity of a society in flux. Notice how the scenes are full of Native Americans as the movie begins, and as it stretches on and on, the faces in the crowds are whiter and whiter. This time period finds freshly fading into the past the settlers’ mass exterminations and relocations of Native Americans in the poisoned name of Manifest Destiny. Now they’re in a stage of erasure as a more intimate kind—akin to domestic violence or terrorism. (No coincidence that the Klan has a big presence in the territory.) Here we see how a genocidal project can settle into a matter of encroachment. This is extermination by way of taking and taking and taking because it’s there and you want it and you can get away with it.

Scorsese locates deep-rooted pain of this history by making a sweeping movie that runs over three hours with a large cast and contains endless fascinating tributaries and details within its methodical momentum. He’s a filmmaker skilled with hard-charging historical panorama, sweeping scope in which he finds the up-close personal dynamics that drive the larger picture, whether with gangsters, financiers, filmmakers, priests, or Jesus. With Killers of the Flower Moon he situates, at the core, a real personal sense of betrayal. DiCaprio plays a World War I veteran returning stateside to work with his rich uncle (Robert De Niro). The older man is the one who suggests wooing Gladstone’s Osage woman. De Niro has never looked more sinister as an avuncular presence — loudly declaiming his support for the Osage, chummy condescension, while plotting their demise for the inheritance, and the insurance fraud. DiCaprio, for his part, has never let himself look more foolish, scrunching his face with the squint of half-comprehension, muttering and self-deceiving as he woos and eventually marries her and starts a family, without entirely understanding that his uncle hopes to murder the wife’s family to make sure their oil rights are passed to his. Does this husband love his wife more than money? The self-justification as he’s pulled deeper makes every tender moment with Gladstone all the more gripping and complicated and devastating. She plays the most multi-faceted role here, as a strong and observant woman who sees her friends and family die around her and yet is slow to implicate her own husband in her suffering. The stronger the love, the deeper the betrayal.

This is Scorsese at his best, as ever, with an ability to see a complicated world with clear-eyed understanding of its implications and resonances, and the supreme filmmaking skill to bring it to life in all its complexities. His emphatic camera moves and generous staging returns to his subjects of great moral complication and human nuance. His light touch with actors lets them get deeper, with richly textured performances and an easy rapport slipping easily between tenderness and toughness, dark laughs and darker depravity. It’s a story of crime and punishment, love and loss, ritual and art, religion and despair. The forward pull of its accumulating incident invites contemplation of the lingering effects of such tragedy. Here is history that’s not even a century old. We live with the after-effects. His telling overflows with memorable faces and enraging detail. He stages murders with vivid matter-of-fact brutality—a sudden pop, a splatter, a fall. He reveals culprits with a tilt of the camera or a quick, implicating cut. Because he draws out the humanity of its characters—lingering in uncomfortable grey areas with people making grave mistakes and planning, then taking, terrible action—it doesn’t allow us the comforting distance of historical perspective.

This picture has all the dimensions of historical horror, a potential for lurid melodrama held back by the restraint of cold, hard facts. It’s also a film that knows to explore the darkness that lurks in humanity, and the lengths to which people will go to build wealth and deny justice to their fellow man, is to explore its characters in all their dimensions. There’s immediacy to this discomfort. One of the darkest moments is an intimate domestic scene with a fire raging outside, their faces lit by flickering hellish orange through every window. Scorsese heightens the drama with this theatrical staging, and also looks close and sees them sweat. They’re only human, after all. We can’t safely put this in the past and feel better about our present enlightenment. The times may have changed, but the darkness remains. In the end, it’s about who gets to control the story, too. Whose narrative makes it to court, or the papers, or the True Crime retellings? Scorsese knows the importance of perspective, and the power of an image. Here is cinema put to powerful use, each formal flourish or patient development drawing fresh insight. Its final moments are moving and transformative in a way only cinema can accomplish. The film holds the audience in the middle of a storm and demands our patience as we pay it the attention it deserves. One leaves the theater still vibrating from its thunderous force.

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