In his latest American crime saga, Martin Scorsese has outdone himself. Yes, there are plenty of familiar beats. The corrupting forces of greed and prejudice destroy their protagonists. The beauty of spiritual connection contrasts with the brutality of the real world. But at 80, the wise filmmaker has tweaked his usual M.O.
While the bleak messages of Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman are impossible to miss, their protagonists had some fun with their crimes. Here, they have immediate, devastating consequences. There's no chance you'll sympathize with Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who's neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He's just another criminal, guilty no matter how many degrees of separation he puts between himself and the murders of countless Osage.
Behind the scenes, there's a larger, more nefarious force at work in Ernest's life. All these murders are orchestrated by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), known as King. An unscrupulous businessman, his own fortune grows as he attempts to gain control of the mineral rights of the Osage people. There's a lot of horrifying American history here, from the Trail of Tears to the Black Wall Street Massacre to persistent racist beliefs that minorities "get a sweet ride" from the federal government. De Niro gives one of his greatest performances. He's absolutely terrifying without ever raising his voice and only occasionally getting his own hands dirty. At a funeral, he pulls Ernest aside and casually explains how an Osage family will die off one by one, leaving him a vast oil fortune. Ernest eventually becomes a willing participant in this scheme, though he stubbornly thinks he'll be immune from this violence.
But the film belongs to Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and her tribe. Gladstone has long been one of the most thoughtful and captivating actresses in independent film, though she's never gotten a role this large. And she does more than rise to the occasion. She pulls the film into her gravitational orbit, subtly upstaging both DiCaprio and De Niro. Even when her character is sidelined with illness for a good hour of the movie, she's still vital to the story. She's the last vestige of Ernest's humanity, but it's not her only purpose. She's her own strong woman, navigating this world of white men who get dollar signs in their eyes whenever they see her.
Much has been made of the film's three-and-a-half-hour runtime. While there's no doubt a shorter version would still be powerful, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker have thoughtfully assembled this story. Not a moment is wasted, even when characters make the same mistakes or try to stop the inevitable. Every funeral service, every tearful embrace, every gruesome burst of violence serves a purpose. Only fools and MCU stans could doubt this duo at this point.
While Killers of the Flower Moon covers some familiar territory for Scorsese, he cedes the floor to the righteous fury of the Osage and other indigenous folks. For most of Hollywood's history, they've been villains or at best a tool for lost white men. This sprawling American epic serves as an overdue, necessary correction.