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.      

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024