'Killers of the Flower Moon' Movie Review: A Devastating Tale of Greed

Killers Of The Flower Moon Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone | Courtesy of Apple TV

Based on the true story of the 1920s Osage Tribe Murders, Martin Scorsese's KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON depicts the story from the villain's point of view (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro) rather than from the victim's perspective. Scorsese delivers a cinematic juggernaut but the filmmaker's choices are somewhat baffling. The three-hour and 26-minute run time is felt but the intensity of the escalating events increases the tension. 

Loosely adapted from David Grann's novel by the same name, the Oklahoma Osage tribe hit a gold mine in the early 1920s when oil was discovered underneath their land. The white wolves descended onto their land and married into the wealthy Osage families, murdering them one by one to inherit their wealth. Leading the conspiracy is William King Hale (DeNiro) who instructs his nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) to win over Mollie's heart, a wealthy Osage woman, and marry her.

Grann's novel tells the story through FBI agent and former Texas Ranger, Tom White as he uncovers the conspiracy. Scorsese and cowriter Eric Roth change the focus to Hale's nephew, Ernest. Tom White (Jesse Plemons) does eventually show up in the film but he awkwardly pops into the story in the third act, making it feel like the start of a different movie.

Ernest is introduced as a rather dense character and easily swayed by his uncle. He does have a charm to him when he's pursuing Mollie and his love for her seems genuine that is until he shows his true colors. When it's clear that he's not in it for love, you begin to question why the camera follows this despicable character around. DeNiro's Hale is also presented as a respectable man until both become the villains of the story. If you're not familiar with the real story, the flip in characters is unsettling, yet intriguing.

Why is Lily Gladstone's Mollie not the main focus of this adaptation? Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant on the film told The Hollywood Reporter he was disappointed it was not from the Osage perspective. Some viewers will wonder the same thing.

Leonardo Dicaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon 

Ironically, an early draft of the adaptation followed the book's narrative with FBI agent Tom White as the lead. Scorsese told Variety that it played more like a procedural drama, but when DiCaprio was cast as White, the actor felt the story needed more heart rather than telling a detective story. Scorsese and Roth went back to the drawing board and changed it entirely, framing it as a love story with DiCaprio switching roles to Ernest. Except this love story goes south once Ernest commits some heinous acts against Mollie and her family. For a second, Ernest feels some guilt, but as he often states, he loves money more.  Eventually, you lose all confidence in that character and start hating him. That's an unconventional twist. Usually, a flawed character works his way to redeem himself but the opposite is true here. 

However, it's a no-brainer having DiCaprio and DeNiro headline KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON for their star power. Mainstream audiences are more likely to trek to movie theaters to watch this riveting and untold story with A-list stars. More need to be educated about the injustices of America's past. The film also touches upon the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre which occurred around the same time as the Osage murders. Depicting these two events certainly brings a sense of sadness and leaves you pondering the state of humanity as the world comes apart in the present.

Nevertheless, the performances of DiCaprio, DeNiro, and Gladstone are award-worthy. As a master manipulator, this is DeNiro's best work since his last turn as a villain in CAPE FEAR. DiCaprio also turns in a noteworthy role as an inept villain. Watching DeNiro and DiCaprio together on screen is riveting and some of the best dialogue happens between the two.  The Scorsese muses last worked together 30 years ago in THIS BOY'S LIFE. 

Gladstone also leaves an impression as Mollie in a low-key and subtle performance, although she's not given much to do in the story except see the effects of the murders through her suffering eyes.  

Technically KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is flawless with Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography, beautiful landscapes, and costumes.

Despite its issues, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is a devastating tale of greed and racism that stays with you long after the credits roll. 

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is in theaters and in IMAX® on Friday, October 20.

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