Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese appears to have reached a stage in his career where he is, give or take, approximating the mid-to-late-1960s hanging-in-there of once bastions of classical American cinema John Ford – last seen impersonated by the deceased David Lynch – and Howard Hawks. Sure, some acolytes will defend those slumber-down pictures, but they were getting the gigs based on previous form, at least until New Hollywood finally put them out to pasture.
Scorsese’s situation is a little different, true. He doesn’t have to compete, having, of late, nuzzled up to the cosy fireside that are streamers’ blank cheques. Some have him down as actually late: the late Marty Scorsese. Alternatively, he’s an ex-visitor to Guantanamo, having switched hats in favour of one of the less-slimming ones. Both factors can be seen fedding into his latest directorial effort, Killers of the Flower Moon; whether it’s simply age catching up on him or a desire to express atonement for past form, the picture translates to the screen as tepid and lacking in conviction, the work of someone whose heart or mind isn’t in it. Maybe Marty thinks a low-key depiction of defeating the darkness will be good for his defence case. Or maybe he’s just knackered (or, a simpler answer: like Spielberg and The Fablemans, we’re looking at the underpowered artistry of a programmed clone).
Or maybe we should blame Leo. That would be an easy cop out, however, since The Irishman betrayed a director who transparently lacked the eye and discernment of old; you can let one 50-year-old Joe Pesci play a gangster in his 20s-30s in your movie and get away with it (Goodfellas), but if you’re attempting it with three actors, you’d better step up to the plate, get your de-aging tech right – it’s dreadful – and ensure you shoot your 80-year-old players as if they’re 40-ish (that kick to the kerb scene is hilariously awful, and has rightly become a mocking gif everywhere). Nevertheless, Scorsese let DiCaprio call first dibs – because they’re such a productive pair, presumably, because he gets Marty financing, and because he might topline another The Wolf of Wall Street, if he ever makes another movie that isn’t a streamer – and while one can legitimately mull whether Killers of the Flower Moon was subject matter suited to cinema (as opposed to a miniseries), its blatantly clear that telling the story the way it has been told was not the answer.
David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: An American Crime and the Birth of the FBI had the movie rights tied up (for $5m) a year before it was published, with the final trio of main players (Scorsese, DiCaprio, Robert De Niro), along with screenwriter Eric Roth – a contender for the most anonymous big-name writer in Hollywood – pretty much locked by the time the book came out. During its gestation, Leo switched roles from FBI guy Tom White (Jesse Plemons) to mumble-hick stooge Ernest Burkhart, nephew of chief villain William King Hale (De Niro), presumably because it gave him the chance to try on an accent, a Sling Blade protruding lower jaw (all the better for emphasising density) and some, er… gormless nuance?
I don’t know, really. Ernest – in the movie – loves Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) yet merrily sets about offing her family (indirectly) at uncle’s behest, for the Osage Nation’s oil rights, and slowly poisons her (but protests he was only giving her insulin – making him thick or scrupulously self-deceiving, if you’re keen to give him the benefit of the doubt). It’s readily evident why Apple was the one to finance this, since no “legit” studio in their right mind would envision box-office gold from Leo in this role (Paramount was an initial bidder for the book – for Leo – and I’m only baffled they considered it worth their while coming in as the distributor for the cinema release).
Assuming for a moment that Ernest was the appropriate main protagonist/antagonist of the story – on paper, perhaps, caught between good, namely the divine purity of suffering wife Mollie, and evil, in the form of smiling and smiling and being cartoonishly villainous King Hale, some kind of rationale was perceived – there’s absolutely nothing to draw you to the character. Scorsese typically favours the flawed lead, if not the outright criminally minded one, and he has, in his time, most famously made a desperately troubled psychotic compelling (Travis Bickle). Perhaps he felt he was invoking the tradition of bonehead brawler thug Jake LaMotta – I’ve never been a fan of Raging Bull, but that’s obviously the minority view – or the delusional malaise of Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy).
If so, he and Leo failed to identify a key missing ingredient: that if you leave your cretinous lead character bereft of drive, direction or ambition, you strand the entire movie. You can, probably, tell any sprawling story with any (well-drawn) objectionable character type, but you’re stacking the odds against success if you also fail to give them purpose (Forrest Gump, of course, had no purpose, but therein lay his purpose). The best you can say is that DiCaprio gives a fair performance, but it amounts to a lot of grunting, straining and gurning to no good end.
The choice is a peculiar one for other reasons besides, not least politics. Scorsese claimed to have rewritten the picture because “I realised I was making a movie about all the white guys”. I’ve got news for you Marty; that’s exactly the movie you have made, just switching out a few of the white guys for ones you weren’t focussing on before. Such comments might seem disingenuous, were it not typically of Hollywood’s eternal capacity for self-delusion; the production and its principals have been careful to espouse all the correct, admirable and progressive positions regarding Killers of the Flower Moon’s depiction of the Osage Nation – being as this represents a tale of exploitation, murder and theft of and from Native Americans – consulting with them and voicing how it was important to “get to the heart of the Osage”.
It was Leo, it seems, who asked “Where’s the heart in this movie?” leading to the switch of focus from the FBI. There’s a structural reason that makes sense – if the Bureau only really become involved in the story’s “third act” – but the price is motivation. Killers of the Flower Moon is stuck in a listless netherworld of paceless (and repetitive) murders, not-so-veiled allusions (De Niro as a “nice” guy being anything but), and Mollie responding in a manner that is stoic/passive/poorly at every turn. By the time the FBI arrive, in getting on for the third hour, it’s too late to repair the damage.
Or perhaps a capacity for turn-the-screws filmmaking has deserted Scorsese. He has intimated that he just isn’t interested in the stylistic flourish and dynamism that fuelled Goodfellas any more, and Killers of the Flower Moon is nothing if not testament to such an energetic downturn. If the similarly aged Sir Ridders continues churning out pictures in the same arbitrary, cookie-cutter style he adopted around the turn of the millennium, you might attest that Marty has contrastingly “matured”. Except this maturity seems to involve allowing the focus to escape one’s grasp, favouring aimless vistas and mammoth duration over mood or atmosphere – both of which might have done something to distil what we have here. The trailer did fair job of overlaying an oppressive air of doom and destruction, but such a sense is almost entirely absent from the film itself. Rather than foreboding, we have Mollie looking helpless and contemplative, stir and repeat. Until she takes to her sick bed, when she’s just helpless.
The book was, apparently, doing everything but taking the movie’s approach: first presenting Mollie’s POV, then the FBI’s (and then, moving to the present). One might assume the picture’s woke potential – oppressed indigenous peoples, odious white-man villainy, brave female protagonist – might have been grist to greenlighting Killers of the Flower Moon, yet Scorsese and Leo nix not only the traditional Hollywood course – pursuing the FBI procedural – but also the progressive one, of lending substance to the depiction of the Osage and gilding Lily’s role.
It’s one thing for the Osage to lack agency (since they were duped and/or powerless to do anything truly constructive about their plight, until the FBI finally stepped in), quite another to render them cyphers, the odd rather functional ceremonial depiction aside. They’re akin to wallpaper, so the various perils and temptations – of western diets (all that sugar doing for Mollie’s health), booze, unchecked wealth, and for some reason the allure of white men as husbands – pass by without any real impact.
Mollie, given the most screen time, is presumably earmarked as some kind of noble saint, but the emphasis on her silent suffering, interminably, means she’s never sympathetic in the way she ought to be, in the way a rounded character would be. “I think she really just loved him” says Marty of her unaccountable attraction to Ernest, despite him being an imbecile and she, as initially portrayed, simultaneously reserved and discerning (“She has an intelligence and a groundedness about her, in her mind and heart”). If, on the other hand, Mollie was also a dimwit, that might well have been an idiot character too far, but it would have at least have tracked in terms of motivation.
Grann says all the things you’d expect someone who’d received a massive payday would say about the movie based on their work going off piste, and who has Marty and Leo planning to sail forth on an adaptation of his The Wager (“I thought it was a smart thing to do. It’s more faithful, actually, to the history in the book”). You know, rather than telling (White Hat) Leo he was being a narcissistic prick and ruining the entire story. Grann suggests (of the likes of Ernest), “You can’t understand the Osage reign of terror without understanding those people”, so justifying the central switch. But do we? Understand them? We are, after all, asked to perceive the reign of terror through the eyes of an idiot; much more informative are the snippets we see – “doctors who were ministering poisons, morticians who were covering up bullet wounds, businessmen and lawmen who were complicit in their silence” – and the habitual hearkening to The Bible and God as justification for unconscionable behaviour.
It doesn’t help any, understanding said reign of terror, that De Niro – that’s the former Robert De Niro, whose clone seems no more dedicated to his art than the actor was, from the late-90s on – is embodying one-note church-gargoyle villainy (with maybe the caveat that his clone was programmed with Osage, as a nod to his famous dedication of old to his craft). What do you understand about King Hale? Why, that he’s the bad guy, of course, and no one’s idea of an individual who might silkily pass himself off as “the nicest man in the world”. And with Mollie, it compounds the impression of an immensely gullible Osage, that they’d swallow a single thing this crude villain would say to them; we’re told via a closing radio performance, featuring Jack White and Scorsese, that Hale continued writing to the Osage from prison. Credibility isn’t helped any by the 80-and-looking-it De Niro incarnation of Hale being convicted in 1929 – the actual Hale was 54 – and released in 1947 (dying in 1962 at 87. So the movie Hale would have aged about 7 years in the space of 30).
Did we really need to spend all that time with King and his nephew (notably, Ernest’s brother Byron, played by perpetually typecast baddie Scott Shepherd – recently the most loathsome “Christian” ever in The Last of Us, and graphically punished for it – barely gets a look in, despite being seemingly less dim-watt)? Couldn’t some of that time have been spent encouraging a more thorough understanding of the Osage situation with regard to their fortunes (the whole deal with obtaining headrights – shares in the oil money – because their land could not be sold, and of the machinations by Congress in legislating a competency test, failure to pass – which meant being Osage, pretty much – requiring a white guardian who would monitor spending).
You might suggest resisting exploration of this – it’s there, but isn’t really dwelt upon, any more than anything involving the Osage is – is Scorsese opting out of fuelling outrage and favouring sticking to the story. Which is debatable, given how languorous his approach is. Apart from anything, though, this element merited further attention because it’s just plain interesting.
Of course, the actual history of America is interesting generally, but gleaning the veracity of the actual is the nutshell. How would we perceive Native Americans if we could see the Americas prior to the 1700 Event? What was their relationship to the state of play then, if indeed theories that the country was repopulated – and with it, pre-existing buildings and cities reoccupied – are correct? We can focus on portions of known history and injustice – and entirely erratically so, when it comes to movies – but however valid this may be, it simultaneously serves to shield interrogation of broader, more pervasive obfuscation and deception (there’s quite enough of it post-1700, let alone prior).
Lily Gladstone is campaigning for a Best Actress Oscar nod, it seems, which is theoretically fine but rather accentuates the passivity of her character (not generally the stuff of awards victory). John Lithgow shows up as a prosecutor in the final furlong, and it says something that he’s no more than fine (Lithgow can usually make something special from nothing). Also in these scenes is Brendan Fraser playing a foghorn to hilarious effect (“dumb boy!”) Apparently, some are claiming he’s terrible, but I rather enjoyed his brief showing, one of the few performers able to etch out any lingering impression at all.
Scorsese occasionally attempts something approximating flourish, at which point it’s brought home he doesn’t have it in him. The faux-period home-movie/newsreel footage as the roster of victims is introduced, or the owls that are very obligingly on call whenever an Osager sees death on the horizon. Amid the period paraphernalia, the KKK make a showing, while the Tulsa race riots also garner a mention, the latter, presumably, more because it’s suddenly fashionable – post Watchmen, of all things – than truly germane to the proceedings (there’s some instant cachet in catching the subject ‘s wake).
Perhaps the most interesting nugget is Ernest’s thorough spanking at the masonic lodge (nitwit Ernest keeps messing up, yet Uncle keeps entrusting him with murderous work). Scorsese drops it in there and leaves us to make the connections. King Hale is a 32nd degree mason (one who is a full member of the Scottish rite) and emphasises his status to his nephew as he disciplines him with a paddle, your classically arcane chequerboard floor beneath their feet. The implication is not only that Hale has standing, but also connections, among all the other members and thus a network of those of similar intention toward the “unwarranted” wealth of the Osage.
Scorsese, of course, as a Hollywood director, was required to become a freemason, so he has personal insight there. The actual Hale was indeed a mason, expelled from the lodge after his arrest – well naturally, they wouldn’t want to be implicated – and the reason for the scene’s inclusion was likely to emphasise that any corrupt and devious manipulation in the world finds its source in occulted places. After all, Scorsese, as a devout Catholic and reformed Black Hat, is in confessional mode, nominally less disposed towards embracing the dark sides of his pro/antagonists yet also invested in depicting such flawed individuals, having his own first-hand experience. Perhaps that way lies atonement.
The $200m Apple stumped up for Killers of the Flower Moon may well yield some degree of return in Oscar nominations, but I suspect it’s unlikely to take away any actual prizes. Marty’s made a film that’s less the banality of evil than plain banality. Killers of the Flower Moon has no glue holding it together, no sense of destination or escalation. Not unlike Ernest in his perma-glazed torpor or Molly in her stricken inertia, the movie’s so measured as to be almost indifferent. A miniseries might have encouraged a semblance of structural discipline; it’s probably as well, should it ever finally see the light of day, that Scorsese and Leo’s other, long-gestating fact-based period murder project, The Devil in the White City, has been reconceived in that format.