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In his latest, Martin Scorsese brings to the screen a shameful episode in history

 Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg examines a film roll in her office

Martin Scorsese has been producing and directing films for more than sixty years. Several of his best-known feature films established new, grisly standards for urban violence. Mean Streets. Taxi Driver. Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Gangs of New York. When my friend, London-based film maven Roy Chacko, suggested we see Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, I flinched. Would it be too violent for my taste?

Of course, Scorsese hasn’t fashioned only films of shocking violence and grit. There are… Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The Last Waltz. The Age of Innocence. Hugo. 

For his latest film—and it’s one of his most exceptional works, Scorsese’s imagination recreates the world of 1920s Oklahoma, and the violence is not of his usual intensity. Oil has been discovered on Osage Nation property. Suddenly, these indigenous people are very rich. Scorsese brings to life many chapters of David Grann’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same name. He has called upon his tried-and-true actor/colleagues Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio to play a ruthless crook and his easily manipulated nephew. William Hale, a powerful man in town, sets out to steal as much of the tribe’s oil profits as he can lay his hands. Nephew Ernest Burkhart follows Hale’s instructions, even to a point of marrying an Osage woman whose family has oil money and then plotting their demise. 

Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife, is played by Lily Gladstone, an actor of stage and screen, including two Kelly Reichardt films. She plays Roxanne in Billions. Gladstone is impeccable as Mollie. 

Murders keep happening, one Osage victim after another. J. Edgar Hoover’s early version of the FBI becomes involved in solving the cases. In addition to the killings, Oklahoma laws are used to steal from the Osage. Corrupt courts deem Osage people to be incompetents; they are assigned white guardians to take control of their money. The guardians steal the Osage profits, and the Osage—would-be millionaires, are deprived of much of their wealth and some even are made paupers. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterful production, at times brilliant in portraying the unfortunate history of these peoples and the felons who ruined and ended the lives of innocents. It’s all about the money, and it’s a stark retelling of a shameful episode in our country’s long history of shameful episodes of racism and greed. 

Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth tell quite a story, actually many stories! There are so many tales to be told that it would be an easy trap to confuse the viewer. Thelma Schoonmaker, winner of 3 Oscars, edited this film, and that accounts for so much clarity. For those who haven’t read the book, a few facts are bound to be lost. 

Whether it was the projection in the theater where I saw the film, or Scorsese’s unusual choices for camerawork, I had a feeling of claustrophobia while watching. So many medium and close shots. This may sound far-fetched, but I was reminded of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. That film, and this film, emphasize the faces, not just beautiful and appealing faces. Mainly faces that tell stories. The casting is incredible. The close positioning of the cameras shows so much evil and ugliness in the lawbreakers’ faces. 

Killers of the Flower Moon should be seen by all those who appreciate the art of filmmaking. It’s all about the pieces, the mosaic, the elements of this film which come together to produce a masterpiece.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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