This article is part of our coverage of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. In this entry, Farah Cheded reviews Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. For those sensitive to spoilers, please note that this review discusses the film’s ending and epilogue.
With Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese is, in many ways, doing what he so often does: taking us deep into humanity’s most corrupt corners, probing the limits of redemption, reanimating the past with furious detail to remind us just how alive it all once was. But Killers also marks a radical departure for Scorsese, whose ever-constant obsessions feel like they serve a more specific and urgent purpose here. By granting more of the focus than he yet has to everyone in the picture — not just the wolves — Killers brings the sense of tragedy that simmers under so many of Scorsese’s films boiling to the surface.
Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller of the same name, Killers tells the story of the brutal local genocide of Osage Nation members in 1920s Fairfax, Oklahoma. But a striking, powerful thing about Killers is that it is no murder mystery: even if the police did take any interest in the murders (they don’t until J. Edgar Hoover eventually sends Jesse Plemons’ FBI agent in to investigate), we know from the outset precisely who orchestrated and committed these untold killings. It’s harder, in fact, to point to a single innocent party amongst the Osage’s neighbors because, unlike many of Scorsese’s more obvious gangster stories, the criminals here aren’t part of any tight-knit, exclusive clique that requires special initiation. This is a very public conspiracy — a town-wide one, because everyone from Fairfax’s white doctors, undertakers, sheriff, and local politicians is in on the scheme, claustrophobically pressing in on their Osage neighbors like a noxious gas.
Still, this pack needs a leader — a role Robert De Niro’s self-crowned “King” William Hale seizes for himself. Fairfax’s Osage residents were then the wealthiest people per capita in the world due to the discovery of vast reserves of oil on the land they were forced to move to (a discovery rendered in ecstatic slow-motion by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, one of a handful of brilliantly evocative shots in the movie). Positioning himself as a devoted ally of his Osage neighbors, the simpering cattleman King conspires behind their backs to orchestrate their untimely deaths so that their oil headrights flow in his direction.
Among the many pawns in King’s plot is his doltish nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Ernest arrives in town after serving in a non-military capacity during the First World War, he is immediately drafted into the silent battle King is waging against his Osage neighbors. DiCaprio has played his fair share of deplorable characters, but none are so pathetic as Ernest: like Kichijiro in Silence, he’s terminally weak-willed, seemingly incapable of being anything other than a perpetual Judas, even to those he holds dearest. That’s partly because he, too, is gripped by the naked greed that characterizes so many of Scorsese’s villainous protagonists and partly because of his sheer gullibility (Ernest is unable to see how even his uncle’s most transparently self-serving schemes will come back to bite him).
However, where De Niro never breaks from playing King as a kind of familiarly evil Trump-ish figure — always in denial, never willing to concede an ounce of guilt, even when his toadying mask is ripped away for all to see — DiCaprio’s character is more psychologically complicated, despite appearances. King maneuvers his lapdog-like nephew into a marriage with a local Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), in order to siphon away her family’s wealth. To King’s surprise, however, Mollie seems to draw out sincere feelings — and the beginnings of a backbone — in Ernest, whom she meets while he works as a chauffeur. Across the film’s 3-hour-plus runtime, we’re on the edge of our seats, watching Ernest haltingly strain against the wolf inside him as Mollie rouses his moral compass and undergoes sickening personal loss and dehumanization, partly at his hands.
Though much more switched on than DiCaprio’s character — early in their courtship, she counters his flagrant attempts at flattery with a wry “coyote wants money…” — Mollie returns his affections. It’s not exactly easy to see why, but the reverse is true of his feelings because Gladstone’s presence is one of natural gravitas and easy, grounded warmth. Hers is the type of addictive charisma Killers could do with more of, although her relative sidelining throughout the film’s hefty runtime does have both narrative reasons (illnesses confine Mollie to her bed for a large portion of the story) and stylistic ones (the space she leaves allows man’s slide into evil — one of Scorsese’s fascinations — to share more of the stage).
Scorsese’s films have often been taken as irrefutable evidence that he approves of the violence and evil they depict. However, in the first of Killers’ two time-hopping epilogues, the director delivers a starkly direct rebuttal to that misreading of his life’s work. His films have never been about glorifying evil, but it feels right that this should be the one to set the record straight explicitly. The scene is both a tacit recognition of the reorienting perspective brought to Killers’ production by the Osage community and an extraordinarily poignant, self-aware addendum to the brutal, heartbreaking story Scorsese has just spent the last three-plus hours telling. Having always left this point unsaid, the inclusion of this fourth-wall-breaking moment is also devastating for another reason: it feels like the 80-year-old director, aware of a ticking clock, has been moved by a sense of urgency to clarify his intentions.
The tone of the following final scene (which seems to jump to the present day) is a further innovation of the director’s. So many of Scorsese’s movies have ended on a gut punch: films like Gangs of New York and Casino take us inside the fiercely beating heart of the past, only to end by showing us history being unceremoniously flattened over and forgotten by the future, while movies like The Wolf of Wall Street leave us with ironic, depressing reminders that the bad guys don’t always lose. But in its very last moments, Killers grants us a hopeful antidote to the movie’s opening scene: the mournful burying of an Osage pipe, symbolizing the forced erosion of the tribe’s culture. It doesn’t just flip the script on Scorsese’s usually haunting ending, though: Killers intentionally avoids re-entrenching its villainous protagonists as the center of the story, instead confirming who the real heart of the film is. It’s an enormously moving moment, a few seconds of footage that burst through the screen to bear witness to the evil done to the film’s subjects as well as their resilience.
Killers of the Flower Moon will premiere in select theaters starting October 6, 2023, and wide on October 20, before streaming globally on Apple TV+. Watch the film’s trailer here.