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Blood and Oil

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MOVIE REVIEW
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

What Martin Scorsese has done here is nothing less than subvert his entire career. For with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he has made a movie about the same people he has almost always made movies about – immigrants scrabbling to make a living in an unforgiving nation – but for the first time, he is not on their side. For the immigrants in this film are the white people, guests of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, the richest people per capita on earth thanks to oil on their tribal lands. These immigrants are there to get their hands on that wealth by any means necessary; and their methods are horrible, all the more so for this story being broadly true.

In watching this film, you can see how America has thoroughly reassessed itself in the decade since Mr. Scorsese’s previous global smash, “Wolf of Wall Street,” was released. That was a paean to greed, a story of capitalism in which profit was indistinguishable from theft, and which spent not one second of its riotous runtime thinking about the people who were the victims of the depicted crimes. But suddenly, somehow, the mood has shifted; and the right side of history is now looks a little different, which the final sequence of “Killers of the Flower Moon” makes brilliantly clear. For if America thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants, that has never been the total truth, and if the ways in which America has built itself up are based around money, they are also based around the violence needed to get and to protect that money. When something is in the dim and distant past – as we Americans like to pretend our history of chattel slavery is – that’s one kind of reckoning. But when the grandchildren of the people this movie is about are still alive, that’s living history in a way which requires another. And by a miracle of empathy, “Killers of the Flower Moon” both meets the current moment while being respectful to the history which has brought us here.

After the first World War, ex-medic Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) moves to Oklahoma to work for his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), known to all as King. King is a cattle rancher and a white man integrated into the Osage Nation, fluent in their language and friend to all, or so it would seem. Practically on arrival, King explains to Ernest, who is a little slow, his contempt for his neighbors and his total interest in claiming their oil money for himself, shares of which can only be inherited by family members. Soon King’s focus turns to the Kyle family, headed by Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal, underused as usual), a sickly mother with four daughters: Anna (Cara Jade Myers), Minnie (Jillian Dion), Reta (Janae Collins) and Mollie (Lily Gladstone). Anna’s a drunk with a taste for guns and wild living; Minnie is also sickly and tended to by her husband, Bill (Jason Isbell), though after she dies he marries Reta with surprising haste. When Ernest begins, at King’s suggestion, flirting with Mollie, she is aware he’s after her money, but she finds him kind and charming, willing to tend her through her diabetes and to marry her in the Osage way. And over the years, as they have three children and Mollie’s family starts to die, she remains in the dark as to Ernest’s true nature.

Mr. Scorsese underplays the horror of Mollie’s situation, which is all the more effective in sequences such as when Ernest attempts to recruit a friend (Ty Mitchell) to carry out a murder for him. The friend refuses until he learns the target is an Osage, because that’s not the same thing as killing a white person. Other people are not as subtle; one white man (Louis Cancelmi) even asks a lawyer if it’s legal for him to murder his Osage stepchildren in order to get their oil rights. The late Robbie Robertson’s music – a menacing and unusual thrumming of guitars that underlies almost all of the action – ensure the tension stays as taut as a string about to snap. But over time there are so many murders to which the local authorities – doctors, sheriffs, everybody – are indifferent that the Osage Nation raises money for the federal government to send in an investigator. This is Tom White (Jesse Plemons), a Texan with a big hat and a steady demeanor, who finally starts the wheels of justice turning (this led to the creation of the F.B.I., which is what sparked the book written by David Grann on which the movie is based). After all the mayhem, “Killers of the Flower Moon” ends in courtroom scenes, with Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow as duelling showboating lawyers, but that can hardly be helped. It is after all the American way.

But for once Mr. Scorsese doesn’t take glee in the violence. These murders are so cold-hearted not even the murderers themselves can quite believe what they’re doing, as when where a woman’s last drunken words are “You brought me here to kill me” before she is shot dead. There’s even a fight in front of small children; but whereas back in “Raging Bull” the children were left to stare in silence, now they are swiftly ushered from the room. But the audience is given no such respite, though there’s so much going on the 3-hour-26-minute runtime barely registers its length, all credit to editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The relentless violence, and that thrumming music, never lets up, though the only cheat is we don’t get to see Mollie’s realization of the true nature of the father of her children. It’s the only time Mr. Scorsese pulls his punches, but perhaps even for a connoisseur of violence there’s only so much you can take.

Mr. DiCaprio is too old for his part, but he is world-class at self-pity, especially when, as here, that pity is entirely unearned. Ernest’s curdled entitlement and capacity for brutality slide hand-in-glove with the doublethink that enables him to carry out his worst, most brutal behaviors, but there’s no sympathizing with him, just disbelief that he might actually get away with it. Mr. De Niro is here to provide gravitas and a sense of menace underneath a jolly exterior and obviously does this with ease. But it’s Ms. Gladstone who vaults herself onto the world stage with her remarkable calm and centered performance that conveys huge meaning primarily through body language. She is like the embodiment of the line from “Sunset Boulevard”: “We didn’t need words, we had faces!” And it is her face that the Rodrigo Prieto’s camera focuses on as the deaths continue without cease – poison, gunshot, fake suicide and explosions, among others. Ms. Gladstone demonstrates Mollie’s youthful pragmatism and good cheer which slowly wears away under her grief and misfortune. The final confrontation, in which Ms. Gladstone more than holds her own, makes it plain she is an actor of stature and importance the equal to any of the male Oscar winners in the cast. This is her movie and her triumph. And the additional triumph of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is that it reassesses the myths America tells about itself by telling the truth to shame the devil. Mr. Scorsese has always been a good director, but by using his genius out of empathy instead of jealousy, he is finally, truly, a great one.

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