[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
When this money started coming, we should have known it came with something else. They’re like buzzards circling our people.
Comparing the villains of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon to a flock of ominous carrion birds is fairly apt, reinforcing the film’s recurring metaphorical imagery of scavengers, vermin, and predators. Indeed, the first teaser trailer juxtaposed a roomful of greedy opportunists with an illustration of ravenous wolves.
The most contemptible, conniving, and insidious of these thieves, grifters, and conmen is undoubtedly Robert De Niro’s William Hale, a venomous serpent masquerading as a benevolent, respectable philanthropist. Disarmingly charismatic and ostentatiously affable, the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills” slithers through every scene, his keen, calculating eyes searching for any sign of vulnerability. In public, he offers his Native American neighbors warm smiles, friendly handshakes, and intimate words of comfort; behind closed doors, on the other hand, he ruthlessly exploits and abuses their trust, utilizing bribery, coercion, and intimidation to ensure that the tribe’s newfound oil wealth “flows in the right direction”—namely, into his own wallet.
Unlike Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street—which explore the inherent allure of crime (both organized and blue collar) in order to more vividly expose its thoroughly rotten core—there’s nothing glamorous about this movie’s acts of deception, fraud, and murder. Hale is the sole beneficiary of his machinations; his assorted accomplices, underlings, and associates are merely expendable pawns. This includes his nephew, Ernest Berkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, dramatically distancing himself from his pretty boy roots), a simple-minded war veteran lured to Oklahoma by the prospect of an easy payday. At his uncle’s behest, he marries into an especially affluent local family, giving him access to their considerable fortune. Against all odds, the unabashed gold digger actually falls madly in love with his bride of convenience, Mollie (Lily Gladstone, effortlessly projecting quiet, unwavering determination)—and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the feeling is mutual.
Unfortunately, the sincerity of Ernest’s affection does little to dissuade him from participating in the systematic eradication of his wife’s entire bloodline; ultimately, he’s just too timid and subservient to defy his uncle. Although his (admittedly inadequate) scruples seemingly invite the audience to sympathize with his plight, however, Scorsese refuses to absolve his protagonist of his guilt. “I got nothing but regret,” he laments after finally turning against his fellow conspirators—but remorse does not guarantee forgiveness (nor should it). When Mollie admonishes her husband for portraying himself as a passive victim rather than accepting accountability for his innumerable transgressions (particularly those perpetrated against her personally—tampering with her insulin, deliberately poisoning her over the course of several months, incessantly gaslighting her), he meekly denies the accusations. Disgusted by his utter lack of moral fortitude, she immediately ends their relationship, abandoning him to rot in prison—an appropriately grim fate for an unrepentant sinner.
This nuanced variation on the theme of redemption—a favorite of the director’s since Mean Streets—demonstrates Scorsese’s tremendous growth as an artist. It’s become a cliché to argue that whatever his latest movie happens to be is also his most mature work yet… but that doesn’t necessarily make the sentiment any less true. His depiction of violence, for example, is no longer quite as spectacular or stylized as it was in Taxi Driver or The Departed; here (continuing the trend established in The Irishman), bloodshed always occurs abruptly and unceremoniously, framed in detached wide shots that are almost oppressive in their unflinching objectivity. More importantly, he meditates on the role that storytelling plays in shaping the perception of history. The delightfully postmodern epilogue reveals that Mollie’s real-life obituary makes no mention of the massacre of the Osage. Scorsese tolerates no such omission: he allows the camera to linger on each corpse, acknowledging the slain by name via voiceover narration—confronting the tragedy and injustice of the senseless slaughter head-on, in excruciatingly minute detail.
Thus, Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese’s most scathing deconstruction of “the American Dream” to date; his approach to the relentlessly dark subject matter (the corrosive nature of materialism, the cruel indifference of corrupt institutions of power) is as compelling and insightful as you’d expect from a filmmaker that boasts over a half-century of experience without sacrificing any of his youthful passion and enthusiasm. In recent interviews, Scorsese has mused that his time may be running short, speculating that he only has a few projects left in him before age takes its toll. I certainly hope he’s wrong; the industry needs his creativity and clarity of vision now more than ever.