Cast: Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
A master riding the crest of a late-career high hits the ground running in Killers Of The Flower Moon, a sprawling yet intimate epic that combines elements of Martin Scorsese's forte, the gangster film, with the conventions of a Western and the intriguing inflections of a noxious story of love.
Above all, the three-and-a-half-hour epic is never sans the personal signature of a director who is not only in complete control of the medium and the material but is also fully aware of the potential of a tale of a reign of terror to convey the horrific depths to which the poison that swirls inside the machine that is American capitalism can seep.
Adapted from David Grann's 2017 non-fiction bestseller of the same name, the Eric Roth and Scorsese-scripted film journeys into the heart of the rapacity and amorality that overran the Osage Nation in the 1920s, when greedy white businessmen scrambled to squeeze the Native American community dry after the discovery of oil makes them the richest people in the whole wide world, the "chosen people of chance".
Killers Of The Flower Moon, bolstered by Robbie Robertson's outstanding background score that rises and ebbs with the rhythms of the narrative and Rodrigo Prieto's piercing cinematography that brings alive the landscape and the faces to absolute perfection, portrays America's transition into the 20th century.
At the receiving end are the Osage people whose control over their resources is gradually undermined and several of them are brutally murdered with the aim of destroying their lives, culture and wealth. Marriages are orchestrated between White men and Osage women so that the assets in the latter's control are slowly spirited away.
The story centres on two contrasting men: an inflexible and unscrupulous William Hale (Robert De Niro) and a pliable Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dangerous tool in the hands of the older man. The former is the self-styled "king of the Osage hills. He pretends to be a benefactor of the people but is a cynical exploiter who hides behind a mask of benignity.
Hale masterminds the slayings of the Osage and numerous other crimes. "Osage are the finest and most beautiful people on God's earth," he says to Ernest and then goes about his mission to wheedle them out of their wealth completely impervious to the moral implications of his acts.
Ernest returns to his hometown, Fairfax, after World War 1 with a gut injury that renders him incapable of manual work. "King" Hale, the man's uncle, sees him as a means to further his nefarious plans, which include getting him to wed an Osage woman Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and chip away at her family of a mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) and three sisters, including the feisty Anna (Clara Jade Myers), and the sickly Minnie (Jillian Dion).
An old-world Texas Ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons) is sent by the Bureau of Investigation's J. Edgar Hoover to probe the events on the Osage reservation. Even though the role is of secondary importance, Plemons delivers a rock-solid performance.
Indeed, the performances in Killers Of The Flower Moon are all brilliant, none more so than Leonardo DiCaprio's. He disappears into the character as only he can and brings out the smarmy and the conflicted with equal force. It is a star turn in which the star is well-nigh invisible and the turn is pivot on which entire film swivels.
Robert De Niro, the kingpin who believes that he is well within his rights to treat the Osage people the way he does, is a towering presence. Playing a man with no qualms and with no pretensions and ambiguities, he adds layers to the role to lend it depth and range.
Lily Gladstone, who represents the other end of the moral scale, is luminous and moving as the woman who does not have the foggiest idea about the fate that awaits her and her family after her marriage with a man who is up to no good.
A conspiracy drama that rips away the cloak of silence that surrounds the death of the Wild West and the notion that grabbing indigenous resources in the name of civilisational progress is absolutely acceptable, Killers Of The Flower Moon is a spectacular cinematic achievement that frequently rises to heights that match those of Scorsese's finest films.
The script drills deep into the core of the philosophy that suggests that it is perfectly in order to let might and guile be the guiding force in the matter of acquisition of wealth in the larger interest of the country. And it is from there that the film's universal relevance flows.
Killers Of The Flower Moon is about a point in American history but it is also globally topical themes. It is about avarice, the dynamics of economic and cultural power, and the collective amnesia that grips societies when it comes to dealing with uncomfortable truths about their past. Despite its imposing backdrop and the massive narrative spectrum, the film stays rooted to its primary purpose – laying bare the ugliness of greed.
Its 206-minute runtime may feel daunting at first, but as Killers Of The Flower Moon unspools it only grows on you and transports you to a time and place that not only feel tangible but also speak to our times in a way that is urgent and to the point. A triumph replete with sublime moments that stay with you long after the film is over.
Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Brendan Fraser