Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells a difficult, but necessary, story about a period in American history that has often gone untold. Based on David Grann’s 2017 true-crime bestseller of the same name, the film centers around the systematic exploitation and murder of Native Americans of the Osage Nation, who became the wealthiest people per capita after oil was discovered on their land.
Penned by screenwriter Eric Roth with Scorsese and set in 1920s Oklahoma, the film follows the Osage people’s rise to prominence and dramatizes the crimes perpetrated by cattle rancher William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) and others, including his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). After much effort by the local Osage to get the government’s attention, a young, lesser-known J. Edgar Hoover and the newly founded FBI, then the Bureau of Investigation, sends Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to investigate. This story is seen, however, through the lens of a romance between Burkhart and his Native American wife Mollie Kyle, played by Lily Gladstone in the film’s standout role.
The film addresses the Osage people’s displacement from other lands prior to their discovery of oil in the late 19th century, as well as the conflict between their culture and that of white settlers, from medicinal beliefs to future generations’ loss of cultural heritage. Parallels are drawn to the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, when the Oklahoma city’s affluent Black community was attacked by a racist white mob. The writing and performances aren’t particularly subtle, but it’s no less infuriating, even upsetting, to see it play out.
At a whopping three and a half hours, Scorsese’s latest is a Western of epic scope. Backed by a bluesy but Native American-influenced score from the late Robbie Robertson of The Band, the film often diverges to photographs, flashbacks and montages that provide further context to the era, while also showing events as they occurred simultaneously to them being talked about. There’s a suddenness to the violence depicted that makes it all the more shocking. One particularly horrific but poignant sequence early on cuts together depictions of the killings of Natives whose circumstances were never investigated, along with their names and ages as narrated by Gladstone.
Less concerned, however, with the pop appeal of the filmmaker’s most iconic films, many of them in the crime genre, it has a deliberate pacing and requires patience. Spanning many years and characters, some of which can be hard to keep track of, the pacing may at times feel uneven — there’s a sort of lull around the middle — but it’s hard to point to specific material that would have warranted being cut. Then, in the final act, “Killers of the Flower Moon” gains momentum as the Bureau of Investigation enters the picture.
By the time some semblance of justice begins to be seen, it goes for a bold twist on the textual epilogue formula that many based-on-a-true-story films use to disclose their real-life characters’ fates. This ending leaves it feeling slightly unsatisfying from a dramatic perspective, as if the story could have played out for longer than its already lengthy runtime without sacrificing quality. But then again, the government stepping in to save the day isn’t the point.
Apple Studios’ “Killers of the Flower Moon” releases in theaters, including IMAX, on Friday, Oct. 20. An Apple TV+ release will follow at a date TBD.