Killers of the Flower Moon (2024.1, Exceptional, Murder )

Killers of the Flower Moon is an exceptional and powerful movie about the Osage Native American murders of the 1920s, but it’s just too long! (4*)
Killers of the Flower Moon
Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon – Snapshot

Killers of the Flower Moon deserved at least nine of its ten nominations.  It is a beautiful film about the horrible murders of Oklahoma’s Osage Native Americans in the 1920s in a tale of greed, crime, romance, and mystery told with elegance, respect, and grace by seasoned actors and filmmakers.  But the reason it didn’t win any Oscars is because it’s just too damn long! (4*)

Where to Watch:

Stream: Apple TV+

Rent/Buy: Prime/Fandango/YouTube/Google ($20)

(Yep!  At the moment anyway, if you don’t subscribe to Apple TV, and you want to watch this film, then you will have to buy it from one of the other sources.  Or subscribe to Apple for a month or so which would allow you the option of renting other major events for additional fees.)

Killers of the Flower Moon – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (10) / Oscar Wins (0) :

Best Picture

Director (Martin Scorsese)

Leading Actress (Lily Gladstone)

Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro)

Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto)

Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)

Production Design (Jack Fisk/Adam Willis)

Costume Design (Jacqueline West)

Original Score (Robbie Robertson)

Original Song (“Wahzhazhe(A Song for My People)”, Scott George)

Killers of the Flower Moon scored a 15 on my Oscar Quality Index, ranking it third among this year’s 38 nominees.  Despite ten nominations, with four majors, the film failed to bring home a single Oscar.  There’s a lot to say here about all of this, especially since this is the first film I’ve seen this year, but we will start at the bottom of the nomination list and work up.

The nominated song “Wahzhazhe (A Song for my People)” is attributed in the Oscars to Scott George.  But I believe this is an Osage Tribal song which might have been brought to Scorsese’s attention by tribal member Scott George.    Like most of the nominees in this category, the song is presented at the end of the movie, which I don’t find especially thrilling when played against the credits.  In this case, though, Scorsese uses the song as a fitting final tribute to the Osage Tribe with a drone camera to record the dancing and singing from above.  After such a heavy movie, it is a welcome relief that serves to ground us in today’s reality of this Native American tribe.

This is Robbie Robertson’s first Original Score nomination, but he has worked with Scorsese previously.  Robertson’s score does a wonderful job of incorporating the rhythms and tone of Osage Native American music into his score.  Pay particular attention to the introductory tracks where the Sacred Pipe is buried and the Osage first encounter their source of wealth, oil.  All of this happens in the first five minutes or so and the music sets up a pounding rhythm that repeats throughout the movie, echoing tribal music with strings, drums, and flutes.

Scorsese is not one to skimp on period visual detail and the nominations for Costumes and Production Design are appropriate.  We have to believe that significant parts of his $200 million budget went into costumes and set design.  Although filmed almost entirely in Fairfax County, Oklahoma, on or near Osage reservation land, significant work had to be done to establish realistic settings as they existed a century ago.  From the century-old automobiles, to the detailed fabric design on Indian blankets, the work required to recreate the period was outstanding.

Film editor Thelma Schoonmaker has worked with Scorsese for decades, winning the Oscar for editing his Raging Bull, one of the all-time classic movies, more than 40 years ago.  She won two more Oscars for her work on the Scorsese films The Aviator and The Departed. And she was nominated for four more major Scorsese hits, The Irishman, The Gangs of New York, Hugo, and Goodfellas. In short, Schoonmaker and Scorsese have been making movies since forever and they almost always collaborate.  Having said that, though, the biggest problem with Killers of the Flower Moon is its length – 3.5 hours – and despite its visual beauty and terrific storytelling, it seems that the two of them just couldn’t leave enough on the cutting room floor to keep audiences engaged.

If anything keeps you from switching away from Killers of the Flower Moon, it will be the visual imagery.  Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto have pulled out all the stops to give you stunning pictures.  They also employ a device of switching to squarer black and white scenes both as historical references, (e.g. the Tulsa Riots) and as cinematic references to the silent film era.  There is a visually interesting scene where workers are in a field that is filmed through flames and their images flicker almost as melting in the flames.  (Alas, as intriguing as that scene was, I don’t have the faintest idea why it remained in the movie.)

Of course a movie isn’t a movie without actors, two of whom received nominations.  Robert DeNiro plays the central figure of William Hale whose rise and fall you will witness throughout the 3.5 hours of the movie.  De Niro and Scorsese have worked together on 11 different films including Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.  DeNiro won the Oscar for Raging Bull and another one for his part in The Godfather Part II.  He has six other nominations, including for his role in Killers of the Flower Moon.  In his late 70s when this film was produced, he has certainly reached the stage in his career where everything looks just so easy for him, especially playing people who might be considered “ethically challenged”.  Again, I don’t know yet whether he should have won the Oscar, but he certainly deserved the nomination.  He expresses so well those parts of humanity we find most insidious.

Leonardo DiCaprio did not receive a nomination, although many critics thought he deserved one, some thinking it is his finest performance ever.  I’ve loved DiCaprio’s work especially in films like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Revenant, and The Aviator.  Two of those films were with Scorsese directing, and DiCaprio earned Oscar nominations for all three of them, plus three other non-Scorsese movies.  In Killers of the Flower Moon, DiCaprio plays a stumbling, but eventually-sensitized idiot whose love for his Osage wife finally turns him onto a straighter path.  While his role was not an easy one, especially in managing the necessary moral turns, I do not agree this is one of his best performances.  His acting ended up being a continuous droll and the only superior credit I can give him is that he managed that disgusting frown on his lower face for almost the entire duration of the movie.  DiCaprio is a great actor, but this wasn’t his role and that’s why he did not get nominated.

His love interest in this film – he always has one doesn’t he? – was Mollie who (bit of a spoiler here) quickly becomes his wife. This is a first nomination  for Lily Gladstone who was thought to be a favorite for Leading Actress (but lost to Emma Stone).  I admit I have never seen Ms. Gladstone in another film but she is very good here portraying a calm sensitivity that masks an innate awareness of what is going on.  She evidently loves her husband, Ernest (DiCaprio), but she also never lets his “white” ways become hers.  I’m not the first to note a certain chemistry between the two of them that convinces you of their love and gives the movie a continuity that helps the endurance run.  She is the first US born Native American to receive an Oscar nomination and I suspect we will see more of her.

The script was not nominated but co-writer Eric Roth, who wrote the screenplay with Martin Scorsese, was nominated six times including for Dune and A Star is Born and won the Oscar for Forrest Gump.  The script, although insufferably long, does have some great lines, especially in the dialog between the three main characters.  Should be noted that the script is adapted from the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker.  I haven’t read the book but to the extent the movie reflects the book, then it appears the book significantly adheres to the reality of the situation of the Osage Indians in Oklahoma during the 1920s.

And then, finally there is the director, and film-world icon, Martin Scorsese.  Born, raised, and educated in the New York City film worlds of Little Italy, he made his first feature film in 1967 and has made 25 feature films before this one including such critical successes as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman.  He has directed 20 different actors to Oscar nominations and he himself has been nominated fourteen times before this year for Writing, Directing or Best Picture.  Curiously, though, he has won only a single Oscar, for directing The Departed.  (I wonder if, because he is not Hollywood-based and doesn’t exactly like the industry emphasis on super-hero movies, he isn’t fully involved in the Hollywood culture and, therefore, does not receive recognition he might otherwise be due.)  Scorsese, too, has a definite eye for the human capability for violence (e.g. The Departed, anyone?). And violence surfaces in Killers of the Flower Moon, graphically, and frequently.  Although the filming of the violence itself is discreetly at a distance, the results aren’t disguised at all.

So after receiving 9 other nominations, it isn’t at all surprising that it was also nominated for Best Picture.  But even though it ranks third out of 24 general interest movies in my Oscar Quality Index, it didn’t win a single Oscar – perhaps the biggest letdown of the awards ceremony.  Part of that might have to do with Scorsese not being fully integrated in Hollywood culture, but it might also have something to do with where he took this particular film.  (More later.)

Killers of the Flower Moon – Related Movies

The Irishman (Directing, Acting, Editing, Cinematography, Music)

The Wolf of Wall Street (Directing, Acting, Cinematography, Music)

Silence (Directing, Cinematography)

Raging Bull (Directing, Acting, Editing)

Taxi Driver (Directing, Acting

The Departed (Directing, Acting, Editing)

The Aviator (Directing, Acting, Editing)

The Gangs of New York (Directing, Editing)

Hugo (Directing, Editing)

Goodfellas (Directing, Editing)

Dune (Script, Costumes)

Forrest Gump; A Star is Born (Script)

The Godfather, Silver Linings Playbook (Acting)

The Revenant (Acting, Production Design, Costumes)

Brokeback Mountain (Cinematography)

Barbie (Cinematography)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Script, Costumes)

There Will Be Blood (Production Design)

Killers of the Flower Moon – What Others Think

Curiously, I found only one review of this film in my standard set of review sources.  Perhaps fittingly, it is from the New York Times (Scorsese is a New Yorker, after all!).  Manohla Dhargis gave it a Critics Pick and called it a “heartbreaking masterpiece”.  She noted that “Scorsese has given this story both scale and intimacy.”  She comments that it engages a curious mix of genres that seem to change frequently so you aren’t “boxed in” to a particular feeling for too long a duration.  She also lauded the chemistry between DiCaprio and Gladstone as emotionally grounding the story and allowing Ernest and Mollie’s courtship to develop with “graceful naturalism.”  Overall critical assessment placed this film fourth out of the 24 general interest films, which is completely consistent with my OQI rating.

What isn’t consistent, though, is audience reaction.  Audience reactions, in one case based on 222K ratings, places the film eleventh, or pretty much right in the middle of this year’s list. With a nine point difference between audience and critical ratings, this film doesn’t show the largest discrepancy, but it is a big one.  The question to ask is why audiences were so turned off.  One reason might be the fact that it is only available on AppleTV+ and few people are willing to pay the $20 to buy it from another source.   But could its 206 minute length have anything to do with it?  Critics are paid to sit through long movies, audiences have to pay for the privilege.

Killers of the Flower Moon – Special Mention

The Osage Murders and the FBI – It is very difficult, for me, to know which came first – David Grann’s original book, published in 1917, or the Wikipedia article on “Osage Indian Murders”.  If the Wikipedia article is even modestly factual, then Killers of the Flower Moon has an extreme fidelity to the truth.  If anything, the depth of the greed and depravity on the part of white folks trying to misappropriate Osage headrights to oil royalties goes even further than the movie presents.  While the movie suggests murder counts in the dozens, it is entirely possible that the true count could be as many as 300!  Of course William Hale is likely not responsible for all of them, but his story appears to represent a pattern that was rampant in 1920s Oklahoma as whites decided to take a piece of the action whether they deserved it or not.

Apparently the original book, based on the title, also ties these events to the creation of the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), headed by J. Edgar Hoover which eventually became the FBI.  Oklahoma, by lack of ability and/or will, never did investigate the unexplained deaths.  In another event – the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 in a very successful Black neighborhood – resulted in at least 36 deaths and the destruction of more than 35 blocks of Black-owned businesses and homes.  Let’s face it, Oklahoma in the 20s was not a hospitable place for successful non-whites and the establishment of a federal-level investigation unit by Calvin Coolidge was recognition of the fact that states too often ignore crimes especially when the victims are minorities.

Killers of the Flower Moon – Michael’s Moments

Killers of the Flower Moon is full of exquisite scenery and expansive views while, at the same time, exploring a growing relationship between a sensitive Mollie and rather boorish Ernest all against an ugly background of greed-fueled violence.  It is a powerful movie from Martin Scorsese, an iconic filmmaker who has given us some of the best, and often most violent, movies over the last 50 years.  

Yes, there is violence in this movie, but it would be very hard to deal with the murders of dozens (and possibly hundreds) of innocent Osage Native Americans without presenting the appropriate picture of how disgusting and inhuman their treatment really was.  While definitely not sanitized, its presentation is graphic, brief, and appropriately revolting – it has to be there.

And the portrayal of the growth in the relationship between Ernest (DiCaprio) and Mollie (Gladstone) is handled perfectly.  Mollie’s patience compliments her developing understanding of Ernest’s complicity in her own, and her tribe’s, growing misfortunes.  DeNiro’s increasingly desperate portrayal of the evil “King”  as Hale’s complicated, greedy scheme starts to implode is master-level acting, spurred by consummate direction.  Scorsese has assembled a perfect team to deliver these ill-fated characters to us.

And he has assembled a near-perfect team to handle the technical details. Cinematographer Prieto, who also did this year’s Barbie and the recent The Irishman (and some Taylor Swift music videos), has delivered stunning visuals that capture everything from expansive western prairie hills covered with flowers to passionate embraces.  With a $200 million budget, Scorsese was able to recreate the look of 1920s Oklahoma, complete with dirt roads, wooden sidewalks, and vintage automobiles.  And, although I wasn’t around at the time, the costumes look like they belonged on those people.  The film is rich in production values, which, of course, is what you expect from a Scorsese film.

Still, for all its wonder, the film doesn’t quite deliver the impact you would expect from all of the above.  I think the fault lies with Scorsese himself and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.  Let’s face it, at 206 minutes, the movie is just too damn long.  A movie should be somewhere in the range of 90 to 150 minutes – that’s what appears to be the optimal range for the movie form.  Less than that is almost like a teaser and you want them to give you more.  But more than that and you come away feeling just a bit exhausted – it is simply too difficult for most human beings to juggle all the threads in a complex film and put them all together after concentrating for much more than a couple of hours.  But Killers of the Flower Moon tacks an entire extra hour onto that.  (I get that you can always break a long film up into segments to avoid fatigue.  But if that’s the expectation, then just deliver it as a TV mini-series and do it for the audience!)

I love most Scorsese’s movies and I enjoyed this one, although, especially after two viewings, I’m exhausted.  He, like a lot of us old men, seems to get too wrapped up in what he does well and thinks he can just keep throwing more of it at people.  Alejandro Inarritu did something similar last year with his Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (even his title is excessively long).  Though it had some very good qualities, I wrote “Approaching three hours, this film will tax the patience of most viewers, and for good reason.”  And so, with Killers of the Flower Moon we have yet another example of an old man getting too wrapped up in his own good works to realize the fine art of editing.  (As just one example, I can’t figure out what the several minutes of Scorsese’s fire scene in this movie has to do with anything.  It was visually beautiful, but what did it add to the film’s underlying plot or message?)

And, of course, as I now exceed 3000 words on this review, the same thing could be said of me.  Still, because it is just too long, I can only give Killers of the Flower Moon a (4*)!

Killers of the Flower Moon
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2 thoughts on “Killers of the Flower Moon (2024.1, Exceptional, Murder )”

  1. There was a killing by explosion and subsequent fire in the book. It was pretty dramatic there. I haven’t seen the movie, but sounds like it wasn’t explained well enough.

    • That’s in the movie too. My sense is the movie covers a great deal of the book. The fire I was talking about is another incident.


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