With each passing film, Martin Scorsese cements himself as an evergreen filmmaker. While many legends of his stature tend to get stuck in the past and lose sight of what made them legendary, Scorsese continues to grow as a filmmaker and adapt to the times flawlessly. Nowhere is this more apparent than with his latest film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which may very well be the best film of 2023.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” follows the true story of a series of murders in the Osage Nation, Oklahoma in the early 1920’s. The Osage people became the wealthiest people in the United States per capita, as a result of their reservation land being rich with oil. Naturally, outsiders wanted a piece, with one such outsider being Ernest Burkhart, played here by Leonardo DiCaprio, who marries a wealthy Osage woman by the name of Mollie Kyle, played by Lily Gladstone. Ernest’s uncle, wealthy cattle rancher William “King” Hale, enlists Ernest in his plot to pick off various members of the Osage tribe, in such a way that their wealth flows back to him.
It may seem like outing Ernest and William as the titular “killers” is a spoiler, but their insidious, greedy nature is apparent from their very first scene together. “Killers of the Flower Moon,” to paraphrase Scorsese himself, is not about who did it, it is about who did not do it. It is often sickening to watch, as Ernest claims to love Mollie but helps orchestrate the deaths of her sisters.
Much has been said about the film’s runtime, which sits at a whopping three hours and 26 minutes, but the film uses every single frame. It is not as kinetic or jam-packed the way something like “Oppenheimer” this summer, but the length is necessary to paint the full picture. A shorter version of this film would just be about the Bureau of Investigation uncovering the truth. This full-length version is about the Osage and their grief, which makes for a far more interesting, sobering and introspective film.
Even though De Niro and DiCaprio hold top billing on the film and turn in some of their finest work, there is no denying that Gladstone is the standout member of the cast. Her performance is one of perfect subtlety, portraying Mollie’s grief without ever “going for the Oscar,” but she may very well walk away with one. Even in the lone scene where she does get explosive with her sadness, it feels entirely natural in a way that cements her place as the film’s MVP.
But it would be disingenuous to dismiss De Niro and DiCaprio’s performances, as both are similarly masterful. The two are tasked with playing two of the most shockingly evil people Scorsese has ever put on film and rise to the task with stomach-churning effectiveness. Ernest is spineless and greedy, but far from one-dimensional. Thanks to DiCaprio’s fiery, honest chemistry with Gladstone, you almost believe Ernest truly loves his wife, even if his actions viciously prove otherwise. De Niro is about as charismatic as a genocidal racist can be, playing Hale as a snake in the grass who seemingly supports the Osage while simultaneously bleeding them dry.
The film has a massive cast, including William Belleau, Jesse Plemons and Brendan Fraser, but Gladstone, DiCaprio and De Niro are the actors that carry the film’s gargantuan runtime, which they handle so brilliantly; they make it look easy.
As expected, Scorsese’s direction is immaculate. The way he blocks actors in a scene, paired with the gorgeously stark cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who recently also served as director of photography on this summer’s “Barbie,” as well as the powerful scored by the late Robbie Robertson, makes for an experience that isn’t always flashy or thrilling, but is always gripping.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is almost a difficult film to review, because it is hard to praise it without the use of hyperbole. It is a masterpiece. Everyone involved is at the height of their craft. Every frame drips with humanity, it is stylish without ever being garish and it handles its themes with the utmost respect.
Overall, while there are two months of excellent films left in 2023, I am going to make a bold statement: “Killers of the Flower Moon” is the best film of the year. It is a towering achievement, bringing a detailed, humane account of one of the darkest moments in American history. It is far from an easy or undemanding watch, but it is a necessary one.