The day after watching this important new film I read a fascinating interview with Martin Scorsese in The New Yorker. In it, he revealed that his original plan of faithfully adapting David Grann’s novel went aground after a first reading of the lengthy screenplay. Instead, he chose to emphasize the core relationship between two of its leading characters, skillfully played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. Indeed, their love story anchors the film. And, stimulated by the Osage people who surrounded him on location in Oklahoma, Scorsese incorporated details of wardrobe, behavior, speech, and customs that caught his eye into his picture.
Those details matter. Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterful example of intimate storytelling on a giant canvas. Di Caprio has never been better, and Gladstone is perfectly cast; she possesses a serenity that is as striking as her beauty, along with a sly sense of humor. I was never bored or distracted…but it is not comfortable sitting in even the plushest theater seat for more than three hours. This film, however, is designed to make us feel uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. Toward the climax of the story I began to ponder just how much misery can be contained in one film and, in a larger context, how low we as flawed human beings can sink in the name of greed. Scorsese has never flinched at shining a light on humanity at its worst, and this story offers him plenty of fodder to work with.
DiCaprio plays a guileless young man who has just returned from Europe, where he fought in World War One. He has come to stay in Oklahoma under the protection of his uncle (Robert De Niro), a self-styled bigwig who controls nearly everyone and everything in his community. DiCaprio marries an Osage woman and blinds himself to his uncle’s wrongdoing, carrying out his secret directives, no matter how distasteful they may be.
Would Killers of the Flower Moon be better if it were shorter? I think so. Would we miss a crucial component of the overall story if it were compressed just a bit? No. The points are clearly made, then repeated more than once. Watching an expertly realized motion picture is a privilege; it shouldn’t be an ordeal.
Martin Scorsese is a master of his art and craft and works with superior collaborators, from screenwriter Eric Roth to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, not to mention his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The finished product is magnificent, a work of beauty, even though the world it portrays is squalid. I admire and respect it, but I would like it better if it weren’t so difficult to sit through.