Few filmmakers have managed to achieve the kind of careers heights that Martin Scorsese has. Now in his seventh decade of filmmaking, Scorsese remarkably is not slowing down one bit. In fact, he has found new avenues of getting his visions made. While some of his peers like Spielberg, Tarantino, and Nolan have scoffed at the streaming market, Scorsese has embraced streaming, with his last two films getting financing from Netflix and Apple respectively. Some purists may see this as selling out, especially for a filmmaker like Marty who has been a strong champion for cinema and for film preservation. But, at the same time, Scorsese recognizes that getting the money to produce the kinds of movies that he wants to make is something that he can’t reliably count on the traditional movie studios for. Martin has notably been critical of the ways that the film studios have abandoned adult themed movies in favor of comic book “rollercoaster rides” as he calls them; basically creatively bankrupt movies solely meant to please the masses rather than challenge them. So, with studios turning away from the movies that he prefers to make, it doesn’t seem that irrational for him to look to streaming as an alternative, since they have been more friendly to auteur driven cinema. Scorsese’s big move to streaming was marked with his new crime themed epic The Irishman (2019), which marked a welcome return to the mobster movies that put him on the map from the beginning. In many ways, it acted as a capper to an unofficial trilogy of mafia movies, reuniting Scorsese with his favorite leading man, Robert DeNiro, but containing many of the same familiar themes and faces of his past films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Structurally, The Irishman also had the same fourth wall breaks and inner monologues of the those two movies, which is why so many believed together they were a sort of trilogy. The one thing The Irishman didn’t have in common with the others is that it never had a wide theatrical release; it solely streamed exclusively on Netflix. So, though Scorsese was given the budget and the creative freedom to make the movie he wanted, he unfortunately had to compromise on the film’s exhibition.
The situation is different with his new film, however, which is also going to be exclusive for a streaming platform, but only after a theatrical run. Apple Studios, the company behind the new Scorsese film, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), is approaching the streaming business much differently than Netflix is. While Netflix has refrained from wide theatrical engagements it’s whole history, with the intent of driving traffic to their platform, Apple has decided that giving their movies a run in theaters works better to boost the profile of their projects. Some of their films have gone straight to streaming, but others like their Oscar-winner CODA (2021) have made it to theaters on a much wider scale than Netflix gives their own. This year in particular, Apple is very much flexing their cinematic muscle with two new big epic features from two legendary filmmakers, the aforementioned Scorsese’s Killer of the Flower Moon, and Napoleon (2023) from Ridley Scott. Apple still doesn’t have a distribution wing for their studio, so they are partnering up on these big budget epics with other studios (Paramount and Sony respectively) to share the financial burden. Still, Apple is a deep pocketed company with near endless resources, and that’s probably why Scorsese wanted to work with them. They want to give their brand a prestige reputation, and he’s got the visionary mind to make that happen. So, why Killers of the Flower Moon. The 2017 best-selling true crime novel from David Grann is very much a different kind of source material than what Scorsese usually lends his filmmaking style to. But in many other ways, it is also the kind of story that he is perfectly matched for. Also, it is far and away one of the most ambitious films he has ever undertaken, as the boundless riches of Apple Studios has put far fewer creative barriers in his way. The only question is, where does Killers of the Flower Moon rank in the unparalleled filmography of Martin Scorsese’s half-century long career.
Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Nation murders that occurred in the 1920’s. This moment in time is noteworthy, because it was one of the first cases ever investigated by the newly formed FBI, founded under J. Edgar Hoover. The Osage Nation was forcibly moved off of their ancestral homes in Missouri and Arkansas during the turn of the century, and were given what was believed to be worthless land in the Indian Territory, which is now the State of Oklahoma. But, unbeknownst to the white people who forced the move, the land that the Osage Nation owned was rich in oil. By the 1920’s, the members of the Osage Nation were the richest people per capita in the entire world. No longer living with what they could off the land, the Osage were now living in luxury, building oppulent mansions and owning multiple cars at a time when most Americans still couldn’t afford one. And for the first time ever, they were being treated like royalty by the white people who once forced them to resettle. Among the white population that has ingratiated himself to the Osage people is a cattle rancher named William Hale (Robert DeNiro) who has been affectionately nicknamed “King” by the people in the community. His nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), has returned from serving during the Great War, and Hale propositions him with the plan to ingratiate himself into the life of a wealthy heiress from the Osage Nation. Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone) has already lost a sister to illness and her mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) already has a foot in the grave. If Mollie’s two other sisters die before her, she is set to inherit a vast fortune. Ernest turns on the charm very quickly and manages to court and eventually marry Mollie. Meanwhile, more Osage members turn up dead all over town. Mollie and the other Osage members suspect there is a conspiracy at play, which prompts them to seek help from the government, since local law enforcement either seems disinterested or complicit in the murders. Pretty soon, a former Texas ranger turned government agent named Tom White (Jesse Plemons) shows up and starts to shine light on the situation, causing divisions among the white population behind the conspiracy. Ernest, getting caught up in all this, is pulled into two directions; obey the Machiavellian plans of his powerful uncle, or remain a loving husband to his embattled wife.
There really is no denying Scorsese’s might as a filmmaker after seeing Killers of the Flower Moon. Even at 80 years old, he has not lost one ounce of his might as a cinematic storyteller. And it only seems at this point that he is becoming even more ambitious in his old age. Killers of the Flower Moon, like The Irishman, carries an expansive 3 hour and 26 minute runtime (Irishman was 3 hours and 29 minutes), which is not an easy runtime to fill and remain captivating from beginning to end. Some filmmakers get lost in the attempt to go epic with their length, and end up floundering to fill that timeframe, but Scorsese has managed to not only do well with making long movies, but he also makes them feel fast paced and lively as well. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a great example as the whole 3 hours of that film is a feverish adrenaline rush that feels perfectly in tone with the crazed reality of the Wall Street world it is satirizing. I think a big reason why Scorsese’s movies continue to feel alive in every frame of their long lengths is because of the perfectly attuned creative partnership he has had over 40 years with editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The legendary creative partnership has managed to withstand the changing standards of the industry, and Thelma at this point is so effortlessly perceptive of the rhythm that Scorsese’s films must take. They are two confident filmmakers with the same intuitive instincts about how to make a movie on an epic scale and make it sing. Killers of the Flower Moon shows undoubtedly that their creative talents have not wavered, as the whole film is indeed a monumental achievement. The one question is, how does it stack up against Scorsese’s own high standards. Overall, pretty well, but with a few unfortunate shortcomings that holds it back from being an all time masterpiece.
In comparison to it’s recent predecessor, The Irishman, Killers of the Flower Moon is a more grounded and subdued movie, which has it’s benefits as well as it’s faults. The interesting thing about the movie in the wide breadth of Scorsese’s body of work is that it’s the first movie of his that you could call a Western. Mostly that has more to do with the aesthetic of the setting rather than the story itself, which actually surprisingly falls more into line with his oeuvre of mafia movies. Along with the aesthetic of the old west the movie takes a quieter, more methodical approach to the story telling. There are a lot of mood setting stillness in scenes throughout the film, with Scorsese making great use of sound and sometimes the absence of it to drive the emotion of a scene. There’s a wonderful moment involving a rainstorm in the background that Scorsese just plays out to great emotional resonance. I really appreciate that he has the confidence as a filmmaker to have character building moments like that play out in full without having to chop it up in order to tighten the plot. At the same time, there are a few too many moments like that across the whole of the movie, and a few don’t really add much to the story. After a while, the film gets repetitive (particularly in the middle) as the story stalls in order for the character interactions to play out in full. Thankfully, at the 2 hour mark when the FBI arrives in town the movie’s pacing begins to improve, and it leads to a satisfying final hour. But compared to Scorsese’s other epics, like Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, and The Irishman, all of which never let up in their pacing, the more methodical pacing of Flower Moon makes the movie feel a bit more arduous to sit through for 3 hours. It doesn’t ruin the movie too much. I’d compare it to something like Scorsese’s Silence (2016), another beautiful but slower paced film for the director. They are both movies that require patience on the part of the audience, but still are artistically satisfying in their own right. Remember, the scale we are working with is solely within Scorsese’s filmography, and Killers of the Flower Moon handles it’s length far better than most epic movies do in general. But, compared to his own movies, the pacing does knock it down a bit from the very peak of the filmmaker’s best work.
What the movie does exceptionally well, and perhaps at the most impressive level of his entire career, is to immerse the viewer into the setting of the film. It is clear that Scorsese spent every little bit of the $200 million budget that Apple gave him and didn’t waste a cent. The 1920’s period detail is exceptional, right down to the smallest prop placement. Scorsese is no stranger to lavish period epics, but here he really outdoes himself. What makes the movie impressive is just how well they make this a lived in setting for the characters. The details of Mollie’s home, from the furniture to the color of the wallpaper just feels 100% authentic and just the way it would’ve been in that time period. The fact that Scorsese shot the film in wide open prairies of Oklahoma also give the film that authentic flavor, and it makes great uses of the anamorphic widescreen frame as well. It helps that he’s working with production designer Jack Fisk, whose resume also includes grim Western styled films like The Revenant (2015) and There Will Be Blood (2007). Fisk just has that eye for recreating the American west with an air of foreboding danger lurking underneath, from the cozy opulence of the Osage manor houses to the roughness of a moonshine distillery camp on the outskirts of town. It’s all beautifully captured through the lens of Rodrigo Prieto’s camera, whose making quite the bold jump in films this year, working on this immediately after shooting Greta Gerwig’s vibrant Barbie (2023). It should also be noted that this movie marks the final collaboration between Scorsese and his longtime music producer Robbie Robertson. One of the members of the legendary rock group The Band, Robertson first met Scorsese during the making of the influential concert documentary, The Last Waltz (1978), and the two have remained good friends since, with Robertson acting as the music supervisor on Scorsese’s films that featured a lot of pop music as part of the soundtrack, from The King of Comedy (1982) all the way up to The Irishman. For Flower Moon, Robertson provides the omnipresent guitar infused heart beat that underscores most of the movie. It’s simple but artistically daring choice, and it perfectly matches the melancholy that persist throughout the film. Sadly Robertson passed away at the age of 80 this August, making Killers of the Flower Moon his final production. It’s a fitting finale to a legendary musical career, and perhaps a fitting final personal statement given Robertson’s own ancestry with the First Nations tribes of Canada.
Of course, the thing that people are going to talk about the most with this film are the performances of it’s stars. The most interesting thing about this cast is that it’s the first time that Scorsese is featuring both of his favorite leading men, DeNiro and DiCaprio in the same film. Marty and Bobby have had perhaps the longest continuous partnership of actor and director that Hollywood has ever seen, going back 50 years to their breakout film Mean Streets (1973). Killers of the Flower Moon marks their 10th film together, and it’s clear that they both bring out the best in each other. Not to be outdone, DiCaprio also seems to do his best work when acting for Scorsese, and Flower Moon is no exception. In many ways, DiCaprio has the hardest role in the movie, because for most of the film he’s playing a bad person complicit in the conspiracy to kill multiple people throughout the story. At the same time, he also has to show that there is a conscience underneath all the criminal activity, manifested through his genuine love for his wife and family. A lot of actors would find it daunting to play a character like that, especially considering that the character could easily become too unlikable, not to mention a bit dim-witted. But, Leo manages to strike the right balance and makes Ernest Burkhart a compelling character. DeNiro likewise takes a character that could’ve been easily one dimensional and adds a bunch of complexity to the persona of William Hale, making him a rather interesting villain. The scenes between him and DiCaprio are especially captivating. It’s not the first time they’ve shared the screen together (going all the way back to 1993’s This Boy’s Life), but it is interesting to see the balance of power projected through their interactions on screen, showing both actors relishing in the material given to them in this film. Of course the breakout for this movie is Lily Gladstone in the role of Mollie. Her role is to ultimately represent the plight of the whole Osage people during this ordeal, and Lily does a magnificent job of creating a character in Mollie that represents quiet grace and power. She says so much in this movie solely with a look. It’s not a showy performance, and she more than anyone grounds this movie in it’s realism. It’s a very brave performance too, given all the things that Mollie has to go through in this movie. Unfortunately, the movie sort of sidelines her for a large chunk of the run time, which is another nitpick about the film, because you do miss the commanding presence that she brings to the movie. A lot of the supporting cast is also great, with many of them played by character actors who feel right at home in the rugged setting. One character actor named Ty Mitchell in particular looks like he was pulled right out of the old west with his distinct rugged features. Like most of his other movies, Scorsese knows how to use his actors well.
Killers of the Flower Moon, for the most part, succeeds in creating a compelling and vast epic story about a dark time in our nation’s history. Scorsese, naturally, nails all of the period details of the setting, and he doesn’t shy away from showing us all of the grisly details of what occurred in this true life story. The violence in the film will still shock many, but it’s on par with what we’ve seen in most of Scorsese’s other films. I don’t think any other filmmaker out there has made violence on screen feel so visceral and devoid of exploitation as he has. When someone dies in his movies, you really feel the loss of a life, whether they were good or bad, and Flower Moon continues that tradition. Comparatively, I feel that the movie falls a bit short of Scorsese at his absolute best, and that is largely due to the repetitiveness of the middle part of this movie. Some of my favorite Scorsese films, like Goodfellas, The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman just had better pacing from beginning to end. Perhaps a tighter 3 hour cut would’ve made the movie work just a little bit better, but I honestly don’t know what would’ve been better left on the cutting room floor. Individually, all the scenes are brilliant on their own, and just collectively it feels like a bit much. Maybe on further re-watches the long length will feel a bit lighter. Overall, it is still mightily impressive, and I’m happy that there are filmmakers who are not afraid to use 3+ hours to tell a story on the big screen. It’s hard to know how well Killers of the Flower Moon will do with it’s 206 minute run time. We are starting to see a bit of a revival of epic length movies recently at the box office, with Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and Oppenheimer (2023) both banking huge profits in theaters despite 3 hour plus runtimes. If anyone can achieve that same kind of success, it’s Martin Scorsese. Killers of the Flower Moon may not be peak Scorsese, but it is nevertheless an impressive artistic achievement that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and in many ways is a crucial documentation of a dark but pivotal chapter in history of the American West. For shining a light on the troubled history that America has had with the first nation tribes that have been here long before there was an idea of America, the movie is very much an essential piece of cinematic art that we all need to see and absorb it’s greater meaning.