(WEHT) – Killers of the Flower Moon is the latest from famed director Martin Scorsese who reteams with frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Lily Gladstone co-stars in this story set in Oklahoma’s Osage country. DiCaprio plays a Great War veteran whose uncle (De Niro) schemes to steal an Osage family’s oil money.
So much of the film’s action sequences, cinematography, and production design serve as reminders for how good Scorsese is at his craft. The tense sequences are as thrilling as anything in Cape Fear (1991); the soaring cinematography, complete with shots that convey boundless scale and even banal conversations shot from low angles, are as compelling as anything in The Aviator (2004); and the production design, with perfectly constructed sets and the whole post-war town, is reminiscent of Gangs of New York (2002). Killers of the Flower Moon displays little pieces of everything great about one of the best American directors.
The acting follows suit. De Niro is good, but there are no career highlights here. DiCaprio, on the other hand, turns in a performance unlike anything audiences have ever seen from him. His character is essentially a useful idiot, and DiCaprio allows himself to be seen as ugly, both physically and in his soul. This is not his best performance, but it is proof the Scorsese can compel his actors to do more than trot out the same tricks.
Gladstone and the other Native cast members, especially Yancey Red Corn and Everett Waller, are the souls of the film. As the wronged Osage, these characters could have fallen into the well-worn trope of “victimized Native,” but the scenes with the Osage reveal a sophisticated and proud depth, one that Killers of the Flower Moon spends too little time exploring.
And there lies the central problem with the film. Like Goodfellas (1990), Taxi Driver (1976), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and so many others, Killers of the Flower Moon is about the moral and ethical degradation of the protagonists. The film centers on De Niro’s character’s clever duplicitousness and DiCaprio’s character’s stupid greed, and these themes are compelling, as they have been in Scorsese’s other work, when the protagonists are the most interesting characters on screen. Except they’re not here.
There should be another version of this story that tells this true-to-life tragedy from the perspective of those who fought against it rather than the perpetrators. And the most interesting parts of Killers of the Flower Moon are that story. Given the 206-minute runtime, one would think there would be more time for the Osage, which would have made this good film even better.