Review of Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Seen in 2023.
Seen in the theatre, in one sitting.
A veteran comes back to Oklahoma after WW1 and slowly joins a criminal conspiracy to steal from the Osage, a population of native Americans made relatively wealthy by the discovery of oil on their reservation.
This film has everything I liked about The Irishman (2019), and in a higher proportion. The two films, by the same director, are equally long and equally star-studded. In this one, Scorsese completes his turn away from the glamorization of organized crime, applying his talent and his extraordinary level of experience to the real historical and social significance of organized crime.
Just like in The Irishman, Robert De Niro plays a mobster of sorts, albeit a man of the most mainstream shade of pinkish-beige in his local society: Not an Italian, Irishman or other racialized, recently immigrated ethnicity. He and his co-conspirators get nice houses, fine clothes and flashy cars, just like mobsters in The Godfather (1972). In the finale, Leonardo DiCaprio is often harshly lit, emphasizing his cheeks and making him look like Brando’s godfather, but DiCaprio’s character—Burkhart—is not a respected man. Only De Niro’s character—Hale—achieves high social status and clout through crime and charisma.
I think it is crucial to the presentation that neither man is physically violent. Hale is an old man throughout, and Burkhart shies away from manual labour, citing a doctor’s orders after an intestinal disorder in the war. Hale and Burkhart never fight, and though they often try to intimidate people, they aren’t very good at it. The two men don’t do the sorts of things that criminals in traditional mafia movies are admired for doing, and they don’t have the same devil-may-care courage or bravado either. Instead, Hale and Burkhart are lying cowards. The centerpiece of the film is Burkhart’s years-long, reluctant attempt to kill his own wife, a sickly woman he loves. Nobody, not even a teenager desperate to admire a norm-transgressing he-man, would admire that. It is far more real, more honest and more important than anything in The Godfather, let alone Scarface (1983).
By contrast, consider Roy Bunch, a much smaller role played by Joey Oglesby. Bunch is white but not complicit in the criminal conspiracy; he is physically assaulted; he holds his own in the assault; and he curtly rebuffs Hale’s manipulation. Bunch, more than Hale or Burkhart, has the features of a hero, in the sense of an admirable character in a dramatic spectacle, despite the size of the role and significant moral ambiguity.
Unlike Bunch’s fight, the main crimes are horribly intimate. They progress over years, from the end of WW1 up to about 1926, with a coda modelled after a radio production set in the mid-1930s, mixing in information about still-later events until Scorsese himself breaks the fourth wall in a short speech, bridging the movie to 2023. There are extra star cameos in the last hour of the film, and a knowingly ambivalent portrayal of Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, both helping to ease the move away from its meticulously designed Jack Fisk sets, toward that present day. That easing, via chronological fluidity, dovetails perfectly with the intimacy of the criminal enterprise. The Klan, revitalized by The Birth of a Nation (1915), plays a part, but neither the Klan nor the FBI are portrayed in such a way that the narrative ever becomes a melodrama. It also doesn’t conform to the Hays Code, that dogmatic 1930s device to prevent the glamorization of immoral behaviour. Instead, Scorsese openly and repeatedly references the 1921 Tulsa pogrom, the genocides of native Americans, and Hale’s white supremacist conviction that the Osage people are doomed regardless of what is done to them. These are the atrocities of ordinary white Americans. Burkhart’s wife, Millie, is portrayed with great sensitivity as a normal person herself, neither heroic nor naĭve, though innocent. Both she and her husband stand in for viewers who inherit the consequences of these atrocities a hundred years later, whether they’ve profited by them, suffered from them, or both. It’s a first-class dramatic meditation on the stuff of A People’s History of the United States (1980).
Finally, it’s got the Tarantino-style failures: Enough little moments of believable absurdity and bathos to be a little bit funny in all its intimate reflection.