Knowing that Killers of the Flower Moon was 3.5 hours long, I walked into the theatre making arrangements with my brain to take Martin Scorsese’s new crime and family epic on its own terms. Scorsese has earned that many time over and if the master wants to tell a 3 and a half hour story, I’m in.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, oil is discovered in 1920s Osage County on Indigenous land and many Osage people are murdered until the FBI steps in to investigate. It’s based on a shocking true story and the non-fiction book of David Grann.
This film joins Scorsese’s lineage of recent, “Hey, I’m 80 now,” productions. Throughout its entirety, I anticipated a grand finale reminiscent of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, or Casino. However, akin to The Irishman, Scorsese sidesteps the explosive endings, opting for a deeper exploration of themes like death and legacies, steering the narrative towards character-driven sentiments. The storytelling, at times, echoes the slow build and crime-laden atmosphere of Casino but ultimately leans closer to the introspective tone of Silence or The Irishman.
DiCaprio is transformed here; crooked-teeth, puffy bags under his eyes, and an underbite with a frown (perhaps mirroring DeNiro’s famous mugging). DeNiro is a revelation as well, playing a gentle and seemingly pious, but actually murderous man whose mostly soft-spoken nature even when he’s threatening someone, speaks of the banality of evil. If he ever takes out an insurance policy on anything or asks you to sign something — don’t do it. Lily Gladstone is also a powerfully quiet force, a raging gale behind her passive, watching eyes. There is also a large cast of familiar character actors and some good cameos from the likes of John Lithgow, Tantoo Cardinal, Brendan Fraser — and musicians like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and Jack White.
Speaking of music, I was of two minds on the film’s score. Most of it sounded like a cheap TV score, the twangy guitars of Sons of Anarchy or something. I thought it sounded like Robbie Robertson-lite, but I looked it up and it actually is Robertson. Unfortunately, much of the score just doesn’t come together enough for me. It suits the movie well, but it feels bland and generic.
However, there is a reoccurring bass line that sounds similar to a Talking Heads song, which I thought was going to play anachronistically at the end, but did not. There’s also a repeating musical note that appears in several scenes; its rhythmic insistence helps drive the action along. I’ve noticed this motif before in other lengthy movies like Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a very effective way to make a three-hour movie feel shorter, more propulsive. Unfortunately, neither of these are used enough in Killers of the Flower Moon, but when he does use it, they’re effective.
The movie also functions as a fairly obvious, but still smart and well-told parable about colonization. I’m sure most American audiences don’t think about this near as much as Canadians do (especially on the prairie). Killers does an excellent job of presenting this without standing on a soapbox. It follows the screenwriting axiom of not trying to make a point — just tell the story and the point will be there.
In terms of the length, they probably could have told the story in less time, but you’d lose some of the meditative quality and the details. Conversely, I think you could make this a 6-part streaming series and expand on it (though, Scorsese would never do that, which is fine). There are plenty of details, like the part this case played in the creation of the FBI, that are hinted at, but not fully explored.
Overall, I think this film might be a bit divisive, because it does want you to take it on its own terms. If you can’t do that, it’s a long and frustrating experience. If you can, then it’s a brilliant, harrowing character study that almost functions as a visual novel in its own right.