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Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterpiece
★★★★★ | Dances with Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
If history is written by the winners, we should always question it.
For centuries, America painted itself as a bearer of manifest destiny. A conquest written into the very threads of fate. Where once was nothing, soon rose a nation of disparate states, each working together for one unified dream.
It is, of course, a naïve and dangerous lie.
Over the last fifty years, Martin Scorsese has become one of the eminent cinematic scholars about the creation myth of America. His filmography is one of violent men creating rituals to justify their immoral actions. In effect, a biblical retelling of this country’s history.
As he’s grown older, his focus has shifted from opulence and desire into looking beyond the veil. If Casino marked the turning point, where Robert De Niro’s Ace Rothstein plummets into the depths of hell, it was The Irishman, some thirty years later, that killed any mythic spell the mafia once spun.
In it, mobsters no longer held any glamour, and Scorsese couldn’t help but ask if they ever did in the first place.
Instead, it depicted a world of toxic men in arrested development looking for symbolism in greed. People who refused responsibility of the social contract, opting instead to rewrite one for themselves. Only this time, it came with a caveat: responsibility is for those who live long enough to have to endure it.
In Gangs of New York, Scorsese looked at the history of the city that knitted his bones to reveal a foundation soaked in the blood of immigrants. It features one of the greatest shots in his career: an unbroken take of hungry immigrants arriving into the country, who are forced to conscript to the civil war, then herded into another ship as unloaded coffins make room for fresh meat.
To create itself, America fed on those who believed in its dream, and that sin is something the country never recovered from.
Killers of the Flower Moon takes place later in history, but in locations so remote, it feels older and more removed from society than Gangs of New York.
It begins at the turn of the century, as the displaced Osage nation discovers oil on their barren, inhospitable land. What was to be a death sentence turns into a renewed lease on life, one where they are the masters of their destiny.
But where there is oil, there is greed, and there will always be blood.
Soon, the state floods with interlopers. Whites, all looking for a piece of the wealth they feel is rightfully theirs, swarm like locusts. Through coercion, bribery, marriage, violence, and legal tampering, they force themselves into the lives of the Osage.
When power doesn’t come fast enough, William King Hale (De Niro) devises a plan to ensure that not just money, but every drop of oil they can wring from the ground, comes to them in perpetuity.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a spiteful half-wit who proclaims he loves money, good whiskey, and women. It becomes apparent quickly that it’s power that entices him above all else.
Money buys him that which he thinks he deserves. Whiskey gives him the liquid courage to behave like he belongs. And women are a commodity. A pathway to a better life, that someone is holding back from him.
His target, Molly Brown, is played by Lily Gladstone, who is the soul of the film. Scorsese smartly understand that he cannot speak for Brown or the Osage. It would always be the voice of an outsider. So, Killers of the Flower Moon is about the men who intrude on the lives of others and displace a culture with their own.
Amidst this appropriation, Gladstone stands still, her piercing eyes recording everything for history. She is no passive observer, but a witness, and there is immense power and heartbreak in her stillness.
Scorsese pulls no punches in his telling, but he’s not as opulent as he once was. Where Casino felt kinship with the likes of King Vidor, the doom in Killers of the Flower Moon moves like quicksilver – quietly and unnoticeably until it permeates everything.
Like Gangs of New York, the film is about more than just the killings. It’s a story about complacency and the timid acceptance of racism on a societal level. The longer we spend with it, the more it feels like drowning. We watch as the tide of capitalist violence washes over the people, silencing every voice that dares to point out the levee has collapsed.
In a bravura sequence, Scorsese draws direct parallels to present day, as he has done in the past. Like with the New York skyline rising above the graves of those who came before, he laments the inevitability of history with deep melancholy.
For Scorsese, the connection to the past is in his characters. They are all religious figures destined for damnation, one way or another.
DiCaprio’s Burkhart is cut from the same damp cloth as De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. Both are incomplete men who’ve substituted moral convictions with delusions. When pushed, they sputter and look away, as if searching for the next fantasy that absolves them of everything they’ve done.
There are no live wire Joe Pesci types from Goodfellas here. That kind of behavior holds accountability, even if it’s twisted and vile. Instead, these men are detached by choice. Their evil is that of complacency and entitlement. If they just look away long enough, surely their actions will go away on their own.
The violence in Goodfellas is something we could understand. We can give a name to that evil. It exists in a world of its own creation, with rules and rituals of both the old and new countries.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese argues the violence that created modern America is far more biblical. It’s a perversion of the natural world, where the ground itself is bled dry to fund the creation of an illusion fit to serve only those who can sleep soundly on the corpses of others.
His visuals, beautifully captured by Rodrigo Prieto, are as mythic as he’s ever conjured. From the earth bleeding black liquid to animalistic figures silhouetted on the burning plains, every element of Killers of the Flower Moon emphasizes just how unnatural this existence grew to become.
For three and a half hours, Scorsese immerses us in these acts, and he doesn’t allow us to look away. He refuses us the catharsis of justice, because history provides none.
Even telling the story as it does is an act of appropriation, the film says. In the end, Scorsese shows his hands are equally bloodied by association.
All he can do is play his part, and hope it begins to make amends.
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