' ' Cinema Romantico: Killers of the Flower Moon

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” begins with a burial. Not of a body but of a ceremonial pipe, a few Osage elders placing it under dirt to mourn the assimilation of their people into the white man’s world, the latter marked by a subsequent scene in which the Midwestern American tribe forcefully relocated to Oklahoma literally strikes it rich by dancing in spurting crude oil. But this moment doubles as the first appearance of Robbie Robertson’s score. “Osage Oil Boom” is the official title of this musical selection, but the rhythmic drumming and slide guitar riff suggest a blues song, call it The Osage Blues, this moment giving way to a newsreel montage documenting how the indigenous tribe became the wealthiest people on the planet practically overnight. It demonstrates how Scorsese and his co-writer Eric Roth effectively dramatize their adaptation of David Grann’s book of the same name, not only conveying crucial information but using the newsreel device to evoke a feeling of distance while also subtly shifting the point-of-view from the Osage to our own, or maybe I should say, to mine, a white man’s. Indeed, not long after, a train rolls into the Oklahoma reservation, the camera gliding through the train car, finding Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returned from WWI, wearing his uniform and cutting the image of a hero even though in no time he will emerge as the villain. As he sizes up so many Osage on the train platform, it’s as if he’s a parasite who has just entered their bloodstream. 

Ernest moves in with his uncle William Hale (Robert DeNiro), passing himself off as ally to the Osage but insisting his nephew call him King, laying bare his dynastic intentions. The script might draw out King’s precise role as orchestrator of the Osage murders, but this no whodunit, both the devilish twinkle in DeNiro’s eyes and his character’s leading conversations with Ernest laying bare his two-faced nature and daring us not to see what Ernest fails to see. This requires Leo to do something he mostly hasn’t, play dumb. (DiCaprio was dumb in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood,” but not to this degree.) He virtually dims before our very eyes, improbably melding the thickness of John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson in “O Brother, Where Art Thou” with Matt LeBlanc of “Friends.” (I swear, there is one DiCaprio reaction that is stolen straight from the Joey Tribbiani playbook.) And when King warns Ernest of speaking to the Osage without having something to say, what they call Blackbird talk, the way DeNiro and DiCaprio literally cheep back and forth is as unsettling as it is comical, like a predatory adult stringing along a hopeless child. There’s a sucker born every minute, the ruthless capitalist P.T. Barnum probably didn’t say, and this moment lives it. 

King gently browbeats Ernest into courting Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a romance with an ulterior motive, meaning to use marriage to acquire her oil headrights. It’s aesthetically tricky, this relationship, given Ernest’s established feeble-mindedness, though in some respect, this is where DiCaprio’s casting becomes key, because despite those fake teeth, bulging out his jaw, he still looks like Leo. But it also works because of Gladstone. Mollie gets a key line about being keen to Ernest’s desire to marry for money, but it’s the actress’s air that really sells it, that Mollie is on to him but also oddly charmed by his simpleness. When she invites Ernest home for dinner, Gladstone’s sloped smile and a small chuckle seem to crack open her character’s thought process, viewing him as a goofy innocent, begetting a grave mistake. 

As their relationship plays out, King’s scheme intensifies and widens, ordering the killings of not only Mollie’s sisters to intensify Ernest’s eventual financial windfall, but other Osage, too. These murders are not elaborately staged, just sudden, violent, and not thoughtless so much as unthinking, forcing us to see them as King and his minions see their indigenous counterparts, hardly as people at all, just specimens in the way. This trail of bloodshed can’t help but recall the “Layla” sequence of “Goodfellas,” in which DeNiro’s Jimmy Conway kills off participants of his Lufthansa heist, yet pointedly without the tension of that accompanying Derek and the Dominoes song against so much grisly death, leaving just the grisly death, reducing any mythological sense of the American West to its brutal truth. And these echoes of Scorsese’s own past mafia movies go even further by innately evoking the land of the free as a kind of mafia state. There are even references that go beyond Marty; one shot of King lying back in a barber’s chair recalls a similar one of DeNiro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.”

The longer “Killers of the Flower Moon” goes, the more you feel its epic three hours and twenty-six minutes, designed to wear you down as it becomes an excruciating crucible in watching a white man squirm. King guides his charge to poison his wife to claim her riches, a plot point that DiCaprio’s performance has cleverly laid the groundwork for, making him seem just smart enough to grasp the evil of his act but also dumb enough to think he has no way out, a man virtually boiling in his own inaction, as one image of a fire burning just outside the windows of Mollie’s home essentially illustrates, trapping Ernest in his own emotional underworld. By the time the FBI shows up, their investigation hardly matters since we, the audience, already know everything anyway, the patient way Agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) goes about uncovering the scheme suggesting he does too. The real drama is in seeing Ernest gradually made to grasp and confess his culpability. 

By yoking us so relentlessly to Ernest’s point-of-view, it’s true that Mollie’s perspective suffers. Only occasionally, and even then, only briefly, do we see “Killers of the Flower Moon” through her eyes. And no matter how much emotion, vulnerability, dignity, and disappointment Gladstone successfully imbues in her implicit symbiosis with the camera, she can’t help but come across at least partly as a symbol. But this also goes back to the very beginning, the shifting of the point-of-view from Osage, a recognition on Scorsese’s part of his own limitations in telling her story on account of the color of his skin. Perhaps that rules the movie out of order for you, even in spite of its aesthetic triumphs, but then, in a way, Scorsese rules his own movie out of order too through a stunning coda that, in a sense, leaves the movie itself behind, exposing its own artifice, not only summarizing how so many Native American stories were cheaply re-engineered for own amusement, or buried that like ceremonial pipe and deliberately forgotten, but implicates the storyteller, which is to say Scorsese himself.  

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