Written by Victor DeBonis
A few weeks have passed since I first watched “Killers of the Flower Moon” as directed by one of the most remarkable of cinematic storytellers, Martin Scorsese. As the tragic, emotionally powerful story unfolded through its span of 3 hours and 26 minutes, I found myself switching between leaning to the closest edge of my seat in deep fascination and resting back with both eyes keen on absorbing the superb filmmaking craft and meaningful ideas voiced before me. Calling this an upbeat story would be as far from the truth as one can go, but, through the immediate time that I left and the nearby days that followed, I held a considerable energy wherever I went as some of the movies I greatly love sometimes cause.
The source of the energy traced its roots from me receiving the opportunity to see another movie from this filmmaker in the theater and reflecting upon its thoughts regarding family, love, forgiveness, possible redemption, and, yes, prejudice. Much like many of Scorsese’s previous works, this story challenges and reveals humanity’s darkest impulses and actions while also taking time to occasionally reveal the times in which love and moments of joy roamed, even if they were for a limited time. The iciness within the hearts of many humans, the despicable cruelty and wicked nature and acts is present, and the horrid impact of what their actions can inflict on individuals and an entire society is unfortunately present through much of this movie. Yet, through such a dark, brutally honest tale based on true events, “Killers of the Flower Moon” somehow never loses sight of its soul through the good-natured people in it who fight to survive as well as the overwhelming passion of the filmmaking performed to boldly bring this story to life.
The theme of family thrives strongly through this film and admittedly helps provide some of the soul within it. Family is something that can successfully develop the strong heart and powerful soul within someone. Or, it can head in the opposite direction and awaken the evil and darkest shadows from a person. Whenever I witness the unity of the Native American family surrounding Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), there is an immense love and devotion present in every frame. Their customs, their closeness through which they discuss others or their innermost feelings, their strong grasp of their spiritual beliefs and presence fills this movie with the power of their connection with one another.
Countless monsters surround them on many ends, but their dedication to finding ways to deal with these horrible people and the methods through which they show themselves looking after each other is moving.
In some ways, it reminds me of the strength of my own family and the ease through which we communicate about what is on our minds and share our joy and take care of each other through bright and dark times in our own methods. The healthy type of family is the type that knows you to your care and fights tooth and nail to help you shine and find your way through all of life’s unexpectedness.
True family just doesn’t label themselves as a family. They demonstrate themselves as family through love, selflessness, and undying dedication and courage.
On the other side of the coin is Robert DeNiro as malicious uncle William Hale, manipulating much of his community out of greed as well as his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DeNiro is ominous in the most subtle manner and successfully steps into the shoes of a character based on a real person whose name remains known for spreading evil throughout his land. For all of the times in which he grins and chuckles in conversations with family and others from his community, DeNiro contains many more moments in which he lies, manipulates, and scowls for a long time at those sitting before him, as though he is prying to find a horrible weakness to expose or something to take advantage of for his own benefit.
Early in the film, DeNiro literally rests his hands on the shoulders of others from his community and attempts to give consolation through times of grief and the beginning of murder. He reminds me of a fatherly figure or caring priest in these gestures, but all of it feels phony when one recognizes the harsh judgment and foul actions orchestrated by him in the rest of this story. Part of why DeNiro is so terrific in this role is his ability to casually step between being deceptively generous (almost fatherly) and being straightforward about his malicious, prejudicial goals and beliefs. In my eyes, some of the worst evil in the world comes from those who create a disguise of goodness for themselves to hide the malice and wickedness that truly defines them.
On the one hand, those who show no concern whatsoever for knowing about the harm they inflict upon others might be more despicable for their more open way of not choosing to care about others beyond themselves. Despite this, in a world in which good is fighting to find its way in an uncompromising world, those who smile for the camera and are trying so hard to appear friendly and as the best friend do a greater disservice to the world by wearing a mask of friendliness meant solely to fool others and make it easier for them to attack and spread harm upon the vulnerable and weak. DeNiro’s portrayal of a real-life monster in this fashion only advances the wickedness greatly present in this film. He is no stranger to playing corrupt men, and he continues to express his talent here in fearlessly stepping into the role of someone who embraces his own coldness and refuses to step into a better direction.
In perhaps one of his best performances, DiCaprio evokes a casual charm and unfortunate brokenness and foolishness, leading to greater ease for his uncle to manipulate him and point him to doing some of his actions. He doesn’t play a particularly good man, but his moments in which he silently stares down to reflect upon the immense size of the pain created by his and Hale’s actions ring with a clear remorse, even if he ultimately doesn’t succeed in doing more of the good he should do as the events of this movie continue to unfold. The pain from his cries and the devastated looks from his quivering eyes from the increasing horror have stayed in my thoughts for some time. DiCaprio and DeNiro have exchanges meant to either plan greater hurt or simply discuss what is going on in their town and the situation unfolding them, and there is an apparent intrigue and eventual tragedy coming from witnessing the toxic connection between the two of them. The audience recognizes that these two are helping each other out, but they are also fostering their own selfishness and weaknesses and those of the men who willingly support Hale’s awful cause.
Aforementioned Lily Gladstone is magnificent in her role. She wears a subtle smile and voices a warm friendliness with her family but expresses much love with the smallest of reactions to those she cares about. Similar to Joe Pesci’s quiet yet incredible method of voicing his own power in Scorsese’s previous film “Irishman”, Gladstone demonstrates great power and raw emotion through her quiet expressions that reveal so much. She also endures extremely uncomfortable and painful times but still fights with pride and unwavering steadiness in her unfortunate state. Her courage and the overwhelming love she carries for her family and extent to which she is willing to go to discover who is murdering so many from her beloved community brings the heart to this dark story. I will be shocked if Gladstone’s powerful performance doesn’t receive nominations and greater recognition in the months to follow the time in which this review is being written.
Robbie Robertson’s score for the movie is fantastic. His music consists of quiet melodies from guitars and harmonicas that excel in creating a quietly tense atmosphere and sense of intrigue from the mystery regarding how the murders will be detected. The score is essentially the type I would best define as modern blues, and my head was bobbing during certain scenes to their thriving rhythm and gently following along with the manner in which the softer melodies complemented the temporary feelings of peace partly created by the quiet music.
Robertson passed away, earlier this year, due to cancer, and this incredible music from him is an aching reminder of the great talent that is gone and deeply missed.
Rodrigo Pieto’s cinematography is spectacular. The rich, green colors of the hills and openness of the dusted landscapes are presented in stunning detail. Pieto’s work accomplishes the task of simultaneously expressing the beauty of the land and the surprising size of a community filling a rather small town. The epic scope and feel of this movie works on a visual level, thanks to the clarity and wide presentation created by the cinematographer’s images. Scorsese always has a great eye for working with cinematographers to provide an ambitious vision and capture past eras in the most visually captivating way imaginable, and his collaboration with Pieto further seals his talent and another visual wonder to add to his filmography.
Perhaps, what I’m still reflecting on in regards to this movie comes from its stance on forgiveness. In earlier scenes, DiCaprio and Gladstone show clear romantic interest in each other’s eyes, and they share a quiet yet very apparent love. It is true that it is harder to know some of DiCaprio’s intentions with DeNiro’s malicious intentions in steering him in a devious direction as he does. Nevertheless, there is an evident relationship with real power and chemistry when DiCaprio and Gladstone hold each other and share their concerns about what is happening around them. Devastation shines in DiCaprio’s horror-struck eyes as he watches people from Gladstone’s family experience horrific killings after some time. Even if he is too cowardly to completely admit the trauma of what he and DeNiro’s goons are doing to Kyle’s family and community, the terror of what has been committed is right there in front of him.
Having been a devoted follower of the Catholic faith for his entire existence, Scorsese often voices the ideas of forgiveness and redemption in these movies. Broken, thoroughly corrupted men in his stories often hold moments in which they work on trying to create a different path or do something to attempt to make amends for their misdeeds. Whether they ultimately experience redemption for the effort is up to debate. Ernest Burkhart continues this thematic tradition and brings me to question whether he, in any way, can or should be forgiven for the crimes he helps commit in this movie.
I have been a follower of the Catholic faith for as long as I can remember, and, perhaps, this is also why I connect with Scorsese’s work. I love a good story centering around redemption and the idea of forgiveness and whether we, as humans, can always find it in our hearts to forgive those who wrong us. For as much as we’re told about the importance of letting go of those who hurt us, some actions are more wicked than others, and the wound from such hurt can be worse when it comes from someone we love or used to love, someone we never imagined in our wildest dreams would ever hurt us.
As the movie progresses, Burkhart finds himself in a position in which he attempts to set things straight and do something to clear his own conscience. DiCaprio’s wounded expression during this time has remained in my mind for some time.
While many of us will never commit acts anywhere close to malicious as what Hale and Burkhart and horrible people with similar mindsets did, the movie still serves as a somber reminder of whether some can completely, truly forgive those who hurt us. At one point, we do love others who we, at one point, consider friends or even family of a different kind, and, as Gladstone experiences throughout the film, she doesn’t necessarily have to absolutely forgive her husband for what she does.
Furthermore, the movie forced me to ask myself. “Should she ever forgive him?”
When someone betrays someone else or unexpectedly does something cold to another person they love or once loved, can the love be strong enough to survive?
I should take a moment to recognize the important contributions of longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker to this film. She continues to demonstrate her incredible talent as an editor via flawlessly pacing and transitioning scenes to help create a 200-minute story that maintains its flow and engaging presence for every minute of its runtime and still grasps me with its ideas every step of the way. I contemplate about the idea of forgiveness through its time, but I also reflected on the story’s theme of money and the extent to which it ruins others. To this day, we can sadly see what occurs when greater amounts of money is left in the hands of those who use it to hurt others or become worse people.
As always, Scorsese brings his ambitious vision to the screen and reigns in unfiltered tension and raw emotion from everyone on-screen. He has never been one to shy away from revealing humanity at its most conflicted, and that is part of what makes him such an incredible and bold storyteller. His talent for providing moments of uneasy quietness and intense scenes of earlier happiness to match with the later heartbreak and darkness to come is hard to match. I may not necessarily like many of Scorsese’s characters as people, but I do admire seeing them attempt to see if they can attempt to make amends or find hope or restoration by doing something they previously never would have considered.
Through incredible performances and wonderful direction, through thought-provoking ideas and stunning cinematography, through a subtle yet powerful score and a fantastic script from Marty and Eric Roth, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is another example from this year of the power of movies and the impact they can leave us with. It is a rich example of movies amazing us as stories and challenging us as the art form some, at times, forget that they are.
It is one of my absolute favorite movies from this year, and I am trying to see when I can see this brilliant, sad, dark, powerful film again.