Monday, October 30, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon: Martin Scorsese’s Hobbled Epic

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon is great around the edges. Martin Scorsese’s movie, adapted from David Grann’s jaw-dropping 2017 account of the serial murders of Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the 1920s that enabled white men to secure their “headrights” – the legacy, shared equally among the community, of land rich in oil – is three and a half hours long and cost $200 million, and God knows you can see the money on the screen. The film, shot by Rodrigo Prieto, with production design by Jack Fisk and costumes by Jacqueline West, looks magnificent. The period reconstructions are dazzling and capture a cross-hatched culture, rich in visual irony, where natives, professing a faith that mixes Catholicism with the religion of their ancestors, dress in a combination of traditional garb and the flamboyant style of wealthy white men while they tool around in chauffeured Pierce Arrow roadsters and fly private airplanes. The opening scenes are lively and exciting, a circus-like montage of oil strikes and auctions and raucous general celebration that spills out of barrooms and restaurants into the streets of Fairfax, the Osage reservation town that has grown out of the oil boom. This is some of Scorsese’s best filmmaking – visually dense, outré, darkly funny. We barely have a chance to process the omnipresence of white men who have intermarried with the Osage women before it all turns sinister. The natives are dying in staggering numbers, some the victims in unsolved murders, others expiring from suspicious illnesses.

The story Grann unfolds in his book is as bizarre as anything in the annals of the nutty twenties, but it’s so far-reaching that as you page through the history you can scarcely fathom it. And even among the chronicles of the abused hurled on native Americans, it’s stupefying. A conspiracy of white men not merely to cheat the Osage out of their oil money by marrying into the tribe but to shoot and poison and blow them up, one by one – it’s like a horror tale conceived by lunatics. And the mastermind, William Hale popularly known as the King of the Osage Hills (played in the movie by Robert De Niro), is the man the Osage think of their best friend and biggest ally, a former cattleman who bankrolled their schools and hospital before they ever struck oil. Scorsese and his co-screenwriter, Eric Roth, put Hale and his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), an infantry cook in the Great War who returns home to drive a cab but who discharges random offices for his uncle, at the center of the narrative. When Ernest becomes romantically involved with Mollie (Lily Gladstone), the most beautiful and the most charismatic of four Osage sisters, Hale encourages him to marry her so that he can be in line to inherit her headright. And then he puts Ernest and his brother Byron (Scott Shepard to the task of killing off her sisters Anna (Cora Jade Myers) and Rita (Janae Collins) and probably her widowed mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) and sister Minnie (Jillian Dion), whose official cause of death is the “wasting disease.” Hale, whose friends and relatives call him King, also brings in a couple of doctors, brothers, on his payroll to prescribe insulin – newly on the market and very expensive – to treat Mollie’s diabetes, obsessively reminding Ernest to administer it to his wife even as it makes her sicker and sicker. (In Grann’s book Mollie’s diabetes is almost definitely a fabrication on the part of the Shoun brothers.) Hale’s one busy bee: he engineers a series of ancillary murders, many of other white men, to cover up the Osage killings and he manages to find time to demand payment for a loan he made to one of his victims as well as to torch his own house after taking out an exorbitant insurance policy on it.

It’s the center of the picture that breaks down – partly because of a script that never comes together and largely, I’m afraid, because of the two leading actors. I’m not sure what DiCaprio thinks he’s doing as Ernest. He affects a ridiculous Oklahoma accent that sounds like dialect comedy from the age of vaudeville; he works his upper lip as if he had a wad of tobacco permanently stuck there and puffs up his cheeks. As fine an actor as he is, DiCaprio is certainly not immune to chewing the scenery (The Revenant), but what he does in Killers of the Flower Moon is really shameful. It doesn’t help that the script can’t make up its mind about Ernest’s relationship with Mollie. They seem to love each other, and I guess we’re meant to think that his bouts of remorse or doubt about the people whose demise he arranges are linked to his feelings for Mollie. Though he proclaims more than once that he loves money, and he’s under his uncle’s thumb, it’s difficult to believe that he willingly poisons his wife yet it’s equally hard to buy the idea that he’s too dunderheaded not to figure out there’s something wrong with the medicine he’s shooting her up with. In one perplexing scene, while, pasty-faced and feverish, she lies asleep on her sickbed, he pours himself some of her insulin in a shot glass and drinks it down, then passes out. The scene has no follow-up, so afterwards you might think you’d dreamed it.

De Niro’s brand of hamminess isn’t as aggressive as DiCaprio’s, and it’s only fair to put half of the blame for his performance on the way Roth and Scorsese have conceived the role, but he’s fairly ridiculous, rushing through the streets of Fairfax, leaning out the window of his car to beckon his minions over and give them their latest homicidal instructions. Maybe the writers were thinking of him as a version of Melville’s Confidence-Man, more symbol than character, or the evil old man in a fairy tale, but this is a realist movie. He might as well be wearing a sign around his neck announcing his intentions; how could the Osage, who aren’t supposed to be idiots, still believe he’s their friend? Killers isn’t paralytic, like Scoreses’s last three-and-a-half-hour epic, The Irishman, but every time these two men share a scene, it grinds to a halt – and they have at least half a dozen. These interludes are sometimes morbidly funny, but I never had the urge to laugh because they kept throwing me out of the movie.

For me, the biggest letdown in the movie is the way it uses Lily Gladstone, a superlative performer (Certain Women) who’s also a glorious camera subject. When she comes onto the screen she’s mesmerizing: commanding and mysterious yet sly and sexy, all instinct, all warmth. (This is an actress you could envision as Cleopatra.) You expect her to take over the movie but all she gets to do after the first half hour is weep and keen as various of her family members die off, and then grow weaker and weaker. I can see the limitations of her role in the plot, but couldn’t Roth and Scorsese have written her one compelling sickbed scene? Even her final exchange with Ernest, when she confronts him about his part in her misfortunes after she’s been rescued from Hale’s machinations and has recovered her health, puts all the focus onto DiCaprio.

As Tom White, the FBI man who uncovers the conspiracy, Jesse Plemons gives a subtle, grounded, straight-ahead performance. And there are character actors throughout the picture, many of whom I didn’t recognize, who bring a vividness to their brief time on camera, like William Bellean as Mollie’s childhood friend Henry Roan (to whom she was married when they were teenagers), a drunk and a melancholic; and Ty Mitchell and Tommy Schultz as two of the reprobates, John Ramsay and Blackie Thompson. Cora Jade Myers gives Anna, Mollie’s troubled, hard-drinking sister, so much color and range that her early death is even more shocking than the bomb that blows up their sister Rita and Rita’s husband Bill Smith (played by the singer-songwriter Jason Isbell). Yancey Red Corn has a potent presence as Chief Bonnicastle; his speech to the Osage Advisory Council, which he heads, is one of the movie’s indisputable high points. The only actor in a small role who does terrible work is Brendan Fraser as the head of the legal team that defends King Hale when he finally goes on trial; he also gives the film’s loudest performance.

Robbie Robertson’s score – the last thing he wrote – is beautiful: plaintive and soaring. Almost every time Scorsese gets actors together for a crowd sequence, the results are splendid. And there are times in the movie when a scene is just perfect, when the tones mix so surprisingly and the effect is so sharp that you think, Nobody else could have pulled this off. In one, Louis Cancelmi as Kelsie Morrison, one of Hale’s confederates, drags the two little children of his recently deceased Osage wife before a lawyer to inquire whether, should he adopt them legally, he would stand to inherit their headright if they should die. The incredulous lawyer demands to know if Morrison is declaring that he plans to kill the kids so he can get their headrights, and Morrison replies that obviously he wouldn’t want to adopt them otherwise. The scene is outrageous, stunning. But the movie is mostly slow and somber, and it suffers from baffling choices in the writing and a narrative self-indulgence that keeps hobbling it. Three and a half hours? Seriously?

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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