I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m one of the only professional critics who wasn’t going into the latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, from director Martin Scorsese with super high expectations. While I recognize the achievement in many of his films they often aren’t on my wavelength and not something I particularly enjoy (I famously hated his film Silence but have appreciated some of his films like Goodfellas.) Especially with it’s well over 3 hour runtime I anticipated KOTFM would be something I’d appreciate but struggle to get through. Well, now I have seen it I can say it is a tough sit but I found it surprisingly compelling and something I can genuinely recommend experiencing.
I think what makes KOTFM work so well is Scorsese has found a genuinely compelling story and he asks us to root for and against the right people so we are with the movie from the beginning and end up outraged, as we are intended to feel. What particularly struck me is the lack of control especially the female characters (in this case real life people who actually existed) have over their lives and choices. So often it is assumed that money=power and that is often true but it is only the case if you have the power to use the money effectively. All the Osage characters in the story have money from oil so one would think they have power but they do not control the use of that money therefore their power is easily manipulated.
This is made especially clear in the narrative by the fact that two with power, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart and Robert De Niro’s William Hale are complete idiots especially Ernest. And yet because of who they are and the color of their skin they have power and with their lack of care for their fellow humans they wield that power with disastrous results.
Lily Gladstone is getting deserved buzz for her incredible performance as Mollie Burkhart. Her character genuinely falls for the simple-minded Ernest but that decision is truly her only moment of power. Even as she fights diabetes with some of the first ever insulin injections she is completely at the mercy of her husband and other mostly white men in her life. She watches in horror as her family members are taken down one-by-one knowing her time is coming and knowing how little power she has. At one point she tries to get the President of United States involved, and I suppose her money does get her some notice there but it’s so minimal compared to the easy power her husband so thoughtlessly bumbles about.
Watching KOTFM it’s easy to become angry and this is intentional. We as human beings bristle at the idea of inequalities around us. It’s gross what is happening to Mollie and we want to make it better. We hope that such atrocities couldn’t happen today all the while knowing the horrific statistics of violence towards Native American women- and those are women without the faux power of wealth like Mollie had. It’s maddening and makes the film very effective.
What makes it less effective is some of the direction of the actors by Scorsese. Most of it is compelling but there are times performances feel like caricatures more than realistic historical figures. This is particularly true with Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow’s attorney characters which felt like they were from a different less-grounded movie. I also felt some of the supporting and extra roles were amateurish and weak.
Other than that this is a compelling story that needed to be told, and I’m grateful to Scorsese for telling it. I guess there is comfort that there is some justice at the end of the film but only after such a price is paid and again only because a literal trip to the President was called upon to get it. (When she does say ‘you’re next’ to Ernest that’s a satisfying moment!) Surely we can do better? Again it makes me mad. It makes me want to fight harder for people like Mollie who deserve power but are instead left to the whims of the despots and fools. We as a country pay the price. It’s tragic yet, like I said, compelling.
8 out of 10