Review: Killers of the Flower Moon is a triumph of cinema

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Killers of the Flower Moon is both a triumph and a Martin Scorsese love letter to cinema – but strap in, this western drama is a long ride.

The true story of murder, betrayal and exploitation in Osage County, Oklahoma, follows Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro), who manipulate, murder and exploit the Osage Indians who hit liquid gold when oil is discovered in the land they are displaced to.

Mollie Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone, watches as her friends and family are picked off in Hale’s plot to eventually deliver their ‘headrights’, or oil wealth, into his own hands.

There isn’t a bad performance from the film’s extensive cast of characters, including a late appearance by a resurgent Brendan Fraser, but Gladstone’s subdued and tragic performance threatens to outshine DiCaprio and De Niro, who are likely to be favourites in award season.

De Niro, DiCaprio and Gladstone put in classic performances in this gripping Western drama. Photo: Apple TV

The film’s relentless push through its three and half hours of screen time is littered with macabre humour, moments of extreme violence and deep introspection between the relationship of the Osage people and the white men who journey to Oklahoma to steal their riches, without ever taking agency away from the true victims of Hale’s plot.

A true story

Based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book, Scorsese worked tirelessly with the Osage to ensure the story was authentic and truthful of their experiences.

That authenticity permeates the entire film, and the earnest struggle of the Indians in the face of flawed men set on enriching themselves at all costs is an emotional journey.

The Osage are established as ‘the chosen people of chance’ when they discover oil in the opening scene, making them the richest people per capita in all of America.

It doesn’t take long for the white ‘coyotes’, who marry the Indian women to ensure they too are enriched, to move into town.

DiCaprio plays the role of the greedy coyote perfectly, switching seamlessly between the role of a loving husband, a cold-blooded killer and a helpless accomplice as his wife watches her family systematically murdered as her people battle ‘‘the wasting disease”, and her own diabetes.

The arrival of the Federal Bureau of Investigation cranks up the tension, as it tries to unravel the criminal conspiracy that has resulted in dozens of Osage Indians murdered.

The attention to historical detail is uncanny, while the cinematography, sets and costumes look every dollar of the reported $200 million budget.

Cinematic masterpiece

The film flies through its formidable run time and makes a mockery of those who have argued Scorsese’s films are too long, and the riveting final act, where the villains must face the consequences for their crimes and terror on an innocent people, brings a modern masterpiece to a satisfying end.

Ernest’s dishonesty is laid bare by one question from his wife, with tension hanging off every sentence and word as he lies to her one final time.

An epilogue, where the characters ends are recapped under the guise of a radio production, brings the story to an end almost flippantly, before the Osage people close the film in a traditional dance.

Scorsese has lamented the state of modern cinema, to criticism from many, but if this is his vision of what it could be, then who can argue with the master?

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now

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