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Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

One of the most touching moments in Cannes this past weekend belonged to Lily Gladstone. As the lights went up after the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and the festival’s camera found her, beaming her face up to the big screen, the crowd roared. Fighting back tears, she was clearly overcome with gratitude.

Gladstone plays Mollie Kyle, one of the members of the Osage Nation who became tremendously wealthy after oil was discovered on the patch of Oklahoma land that the U.S. government had sloughed the Osage off to after uprooting them from their ancient home on the Great Plains. When Mollie catches the eye of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a veteran of the First World War who has arrived in the small town of Fairfax to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), she knows he’s going to be after her money.

Ernest may be a bit dim, but his charms are irresistible. The love that takes hold between Mollie and Ernest is genuine and remains steadfast even after members of the Osage community—and her own family—begin dying in strange and mysterious ways. “Many of us have been waiting impatiently for Gladstone to land a substantial part since her piercingly sensitive work as a lonely ranch hand in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “And it’s taken a director frequently criticized for his scarcity of fully dimensional female characters not only to provide one but to make her the wounded heart of the movie.” Gladstone is “transfixing in her self-possessed dignity and alert intelligence as much as her encroaching sorrow, or her physical agony when amoral conspirators and her gullible husband push her to the brink of death.”

DiCaprio’s Ernest is “neither hero nor charismatic outlaw, but a grasping, biddable, determinedly unreflective stooge, whose actions inspire revulsion and outrage,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. But DiCaprio “meets the challenge with one of the finest, most complex performances he’s ever given.” Ernest “allows him to turn his star charisma towards truly squalid, self-destructive ends: he somehow simultaneously resembles both a boyishly handsome leading man and an angry walnut.”

That’s not how Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri sees it. “DiCaprio is a fine actor,” he writes, “but he needs space to maneuver. He’s at his best when he can go big. Here, his character shrinks the more he’s onscreen, and the actor sometimes feels lost. De Niro, by contrast, has a grand old time as the smooth-talking Hale, imparting his ghastly plans with avuncular chumminess, as if they were bits of folksy wisdom. It’s a return to the quiet menace of some of his classic characters.”

Rolling Stone’s David Fear admires the ways that production designer Jack Fisk and his team “turn Hale’s ranch into a warped Xanadu that’s part mausoleum, part masculine predator’s lair. It’s one of many extraordinary, character-informing touches in a film filled with them.” And in the Irish Times, Donald Clarke notes that cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto “shoots in a chocolatey light that suggests the western paintings of Charles Marion Russell.”

Very late into Killers of the Flower Moon, Jesse Plemons enters the picture as Tom White, an FBI agent sent to Fairfax to investigate the string of Osage deaths. In Scorsese and cowriter Eric Roth’s early drafts, Killers was White’s story, but as Scorsese has often explained, during a pandemic-imposed pause in preproduction, DiCaprio, who was to have played White, asked him, “Where is the heart of this story?” After meetings with the Osage—and at the press conference, Chief Sitting Bear expressed his sincere appreciation for the care Scorsese and his team took to hear out their concerns—the focus shifted to Ernest and Mollie.

Killers became, as Justin Chang puts it in the Los Angeles Times, “a story of this nation’s original sin, here compounded to a degree of monstrosity and horror that can give even a chronicler of human evil as seasoned as Scorsese pause.” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson senses “a sinister coyness to the film, the implication of something awful and unseen hanging at the edges of every scene.” Anyone “heading to a Martin Scorsese movie looking for the electric verve of so many of his past films may initially be disappointed. But as Killers of the Flower Moon seeps in, it shocks, resounds, and haunts.”

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