I feel somewhat conflicted about Killers of the Flower Moon. The film is an adaptation of David Grann’s book by the same name which tells the true story of a bunch of greed driven murders of members of the Osage tribe. On the one hand, I’m sure many will hail it as a cinematic masterpiece and it will win a ton of awards. On the other hand, I felt the sum amounts to less than its parts.
One of the things Killers of the Flower Moon has going for it is the acting performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. To varying degrees, both pull off what I call the Tony Soprano effect – they are not particularly nice characters that you are both rooting for and against. De Niro, who often seems to play a caricature of himself, manages to dial it down to a level where he can create an interesting, slippery character. Unfortunately, given their star power, it is hard to get beyond the sense that you are watching DiCaprio and De Niro act as opposed to watching characters. A bigger problem is, those two characters completely overshadow the third main character, Molly Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone. Gladstone portrays Burkhart with such stoicism that she kind of falls into the background. We have little to no idea what Burkhart is thinking or why she does what she does. This may have been a directorial choice, but it really hurt the chemistry with DiCaprio, a key relationship in the movie.
Speaking of direction, Martin Scorsese clearly felt like this was an ‘important movie.’ Unfortunately, I’m not sure what movie Scorsese was trying to make. Is it a historical period piece? A crime mystery? A character study? Ultimately, it’s failure to make a clear choice hurts the film. Its focus of nearly all of its attention on DiCaprio and De Niro seems to undermine whatever point Scorcese was trying to make. In particular, by focusing on those two characters, the film fails to provide much characterization for the Osage characters, who end up basically being treated as plot devices. This seems to be a particularly odd approach given the stated purpose of telling their story.
While the pacing for the first two thirds of the movie were fine, the 3 ½ hour run time just felt bloated, stretched too long by long camera shots and dialogue that didn’t always drive the plot or characters. This is largely overcome on the back of an effective soundtrack that pushes the movie forward and keeps the audience on edge. However, I felt the third act lost its way completely. Scorsese’s most curious directorial choice is how he handled the ‘what happened to the characters next’ exposition. Usually, this is accomplished with text and perhaps some pictures of the real people the movie was portraying. Scorsese deserves some credit for coming up with an innovative way of doing this, but it felt out of place and took me completely out of the movie. Similarly, a bunch of big name actors that pop up near the end in small roles. While it was fun to spot them, it takes you out of the movie.
Perhaps the best praise I can give a historical film is that it made me want to look up what really happened. Killers of the Flower Moon accomplishes that. Though it is too long, it is buttressed by some strong acting performances. I think a lot of people will like this movie more than I did. While it felt a bit jumbled, it was entertaining. If you like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, you will probably want to give Killers of the Flower Moon a chance, though I think Gangs of New York is a better film.
Here is the podcast version of my review. It is worth checking out for another take of the movie, as my co-host loved it:
Killers of the Flower Moon is now in theaters.
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