BFI London Film Festival: Killers of the Flower Moon Review

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Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) © Apple TV+

“Father, how could Jesus love a wretch like this?”

★★★★☆

So Andrew Garfield’s battered Jesuit ponders of the man who is both his pleading convert and frequent betrayer in Martin Scorsese’s 2016 epic Silence. In its wariness, its disgust and its faint compassion (or perhaps just pity) for a man weak-willed enough to beg forgiveness for actions he will only repeat in future, the query resounds across Scorsese’s behemoth filmography. Few directors have ever been so transfixed with the spectacle of man’s soul in freefall; fragile, eminently corruptible and hopelessly yearning for some measure of redemption in spite of it all.

Across his latest epic’s sprawling but steadily purposeful three plus hours, Scorsese poses the Jesuit’s query with renewed force, aiming its confounded, awed fury in the direction of one Ernest Burkhart. Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio, in what may be the most fearlessly off-putting performance of his career) is a post-war drifter with neither drive nor purpose. Not only is his income entirely in thrall to his wealthy rancher uncle (Robert De Niro), but he’s more than content for the richer, more powerful man to dictate his thoughts for him as well.

When said uncle dictates that he woo his way into the affections and the finances of Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family are the recipients of a considerable oil fortune, he does not hesitate. Moreover, as he takes an increasingly active role in the mass murder of Osage people for the purpose of claiming their wealth, the paradoxical nature of his seemingly genuine love for Mollie scarcely occurs to him. Again and again, his weakness defies all belief or sense. In the resounding aftershock of Killers of the Flower Moon, one can still smell the putrefying rot of him. Burkhart is, in short, an almost impossible protagonist for a story, and for all its basis in truth, Killers is indisputably a story. David Grann’s non-fiction opus, on which Scorsese’s film is based, fashioned a propulsive, comprehensive narrative from a shockingly little-known 20th century atrocity still being keenly felt within the Osage Nation today. Naturally, the attentive, detail-oriented approach of Grann’s book had no need of restricting itself to a lone vantage or viewpoint. The primary question for a film adaptation, then, is the matter of which angle to approach the story from.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) © Apple TV+

Boldly, Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth abandoned the original, obvious choice to make a hero of hypercompetent FBI man Tom White. White (a behatted Jesse Plemons) spearheaded the investigation that would ultimately bring down at least some of the Osage murders’ perpetrators, but his presence in the film is exceedingly minor, to the point of scarcely registering at all. Instead, Scorsese and co. resolve to directly confront the evil behind the murders, a force that appears motivated by something deeper and more inexplicable than mere greed; a cruelty both blindly stupid and patiently calculated in nature. Killers of the Flower Moon conveys a deep, haunted sorrow at actions one feels the filmmakers neither wholly understand nor much want to, for fear of catching a glimpse of a darkness too blinding to look upon. 

Scorsese and co.’s confrontational dive into the dark heart of this story refuses the audience the heroic anchor to which they may otherwise have clung, but there’s a downside regardless. So transfixed is Killers of the Flower Moon with the corrosive rot encroaching upon the Osage Nation that it can, at points, risk leaving the Osage themselves in the backseat, more captivated by the villains than their victims. It can feel like a disproportionate amount of the weight of the Osage’s losses is ultimately affixed to Gladstone’s shoulders, though the actress proves more than capable of carrying it regardless. Over time, Mollie Burkhart comes to bear a heavier load of grief than seems possible for a single lifetime, and Gladstone embodies her resilience with weathered dignity.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) © Apple TV+

Still, if Killers ultimately cannot be a work of perfect empathy, one senses that Scorsese would be first to concede it. In a chilling final flourish, the director lays bare both the profound responsibility in bringing a story such as this to light and the inevitable shortcomings of a white filmmaker’s stewardship, even an all-time great one on fire-breathing form. In the end, the film’s flaws feel part and parcel of its lingering, ruminative power. Like Grann’s book before it, it’s the stories that remain untold in Scorsese’s film that are left to trouble us the most, lost to the ravages of time and prejudice, likely never to be recovered.

Words by Thomas Messner

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now.


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1 COMMENT

  1. This is a nuanced and insightful review, and catches Scorsese’s genius at dramatizing the dark side of human nature, which this story gives rich evidence of. Paradoxically Scorsese simultaneously manages to find elements in his characters moral failures or moments of action when they actually have a positive moment or do a positive thing, going all the way back to Taxi Driver. Burkhart loves Molly, and as Messner describes, she has the moral weight to bear the tragedies that surround her. It’s particularly good Messner catches the drawback of having a lead character like Burkhart: it weighs down the film that only Scorsese’s directorial drive and the violent nature of the story manage to keep from being too great a weight. Well done, better than all the 5* reviews suffused with Scorsese worship and righteous indignation over the treatment of the Osage.

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