DiCaprio is excellent at playing a man too dumb or too delusional to see why his uncle is driving him toward this marriage, but the effect makes much of the film about a reluctant Charles Boyer reenacting Gaslight. We’d even argue that too much of the film is devoted to the lies Ernest tells, including to himself, when the real powerhouse of the film is Gladstone’s Mollie. A towering performance of quiet strength being sapped dry by her husband’s deceptions, Gladstone deserves every accolade that will come her way this awards season. Mollie is a laconic woman, but the rueful smile on her lips during Ernest’s first overtures, and the fading resignation as her will to know the truth is being snuffed out is the true heart of the film.
Reportedly, Scorsese and DiCaprio aborted the book’s structure because they didn’t want to make yet another “white savior” film that centered on FBI agent Tom White (the role DiCaprio was originally pegged for). That’s admirable, but perhaps DiCaprio didn’t need the lead role at all if he must play Ernest. Admittedly, this is a character with a Shakespearean trajectory of rich self-destruction, but rather than centering on the bad men, the film might’ve been sharpened (and certainly shortened) if Mollie’s sense of betrayal was the dramatic arc of the picture.
At nearly four hours in length, The Killers of the Flower Moon is evidently all things to Scorsese: an ode to the Osage Nation and by extension the many Indigenous cultures exploited and wiped out by “manifest destiny” and other euphemisms for American wantonness. But it’s also a crime movie, and finally a legal drama as a white government at last flinches at cowboys killing Indians. The scene of Ernest’s pure befuddlement when he meets a lawman who isn’t on his uncle’s take—and thus legitimately concerned about who is killing the Native Americans—has a grim gallows humor to it.
The film’s desire to give full exploration to every one of these avenues does make it indulgent in a way other three-hour Scorsese epics are not. Killers heavily luxuriates in its subjects of love, hate, and Osage grace. Nonetheless, it remains as gripping a piece of cinema as any you will see this year, and among its bad men features one of the finest, and most chilling, performances in De Niro’s storied career. William Hale might even be the most vile creation ever realized by an actor who’s also played Al Capone and Jimmy Conway. The actor recently has spoken about the nature of evil in modern figureheads of American racism, and there’s a folksy knowingness toward the timeliness of this character too.
While Hale might be the culmination of Killers of the Flower Moon’s conspiracy, he is just one thread in a larger national tapestry of pitiless conquest. Scorsese wrestles with this in a film that in many ways feels like the final word on the Hollywood Western, just as he’s wrestling with how to recenter it. Hence even though the film is told through the eyes of the killers, the movie has the grace to end on the Osage themselves. It’s the twin thread in a shared story; this one of survival, endurance, and a charity of spirit that makes for an American reclamation. Scorsese sees both sides, but it’s obvious which he hopes will carry forward.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens wide on Friday, Oct. 20.