“KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON”
Starring Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Scott Shepherd, Everett Walker, Talee Redcorn, Yancey Red Corn, Tatanka Means, Tommy Schultz, Sturgill Simpson
Written by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese
Based on “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann
Produced by Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas, Martin Scorsese, Daniel Lupi
Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by Robbie Robertson

By Matt Neufeld
October 19, 2023

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” Martin Scorsese’s tragic drama about the horrendous murders of hundreds of members of the indigenous Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the early 1900s by a cabal of psycho lunatic murderers who killed to steal the Osage peoples’ oil-generated wealth, is a powerful, moving, suspenseful and important instant classic, an instant masterpiece, and is easily, far-and-away, the best film released so far in 2023.

Scorsese and his veteran, hard-working, talented cast and crew succeed on every filmic level to produce a film that not only delivers as an epic-sized, highly-recommended entertainment, but the memorable, emotional film also concurrently delivers a long list of impactful messages, themes, morals and lessons about the overall horrendous criminal mistreatment of American Indians by the United States and Canadian governments for centuries–essential, still-relevant messages that will move straight to filmgoers’ hearts, minds and souls.

Everyone involved with “Killers” is working at the tops of their respective filmic games, and it impressively shows from the opening scene to the incredibly powerful closing shots.

Scorsese directs, as he’s always done, with continued power, artistry, assurance, confidence, inspiration and dedication, utilizing his usual welcome array of quickly, but assuredly, timed, paced, blocked and edited camera shots, movements, angles and scenes, resulting in a movie as consistently, reliably impressive as anything he’s done. His direction is always powerful, refusing to flinch and shy away from the tougher and grittier moments, but always wise enough to deliver equal time for the more slower-paced human and humane moments. Scorsese knows when to bring the violence and darkness, but he also knows when to bring the heartfelt drama, emotion and character interaction. It’s a balance that is required of all filmmakers, but too many directors fail on striking that balance on a continually high level, especially with too many young, wayward film directors working today. And Scorsese continues to surprise with scenes, shots and moments that dazzle the filmgoer with their sheer unexpected, inspired atmospheric and mood-enhancing artistry. There are several of these moments in “Killers,” and, amid the intense, churning, turning, multi-layered storytelling, Scorsese allows the film to have its breathing room, and he supplies those atmospheric shots to deliver his messages even more powerfully. It’s all a master class on true, real, classic filmmaking– and those younger film directors need to be taking extensive notes.

Scorsese penned the “Killers” screenplay with veteran, talented screenwriter Eric Roth, basing their screenplay on the 2017 book by David Grann. Like Scorsese’s direction, the screenplay has that same balance of sheer violence and brutality–this is a story about psycho murderers, after all–and atmospheric introspection among the varied characters about those murders. The script, story, plot, dialogue, characters and characterizations are all complex, involving and, somehow, fascinating to watch. “Somehow,” because most of the main characters are just thoroughly horrible, miserable excuses for humans beings. To keep viewers’ interest in this story and its slimeball murderers is a writing achievement, considering, again, that most of the main characters in “Killers” are the actual murderers, and they are just the most horrific, hateful, scary, despicable, low-down racist, sexist backwoods redneck yahoos this side of the inbred monstrosities depicted, well, in thousands of serial killer movies.

Veteran production designer Jack Fisk is on hand to deliver his set design, art direction and overall-look magic. Fisk knows how to involve, include and merge into the story the visual and symbolic aspects of nature and the natural world, and all that that entails, into the mood, texture and storytelling of the action. Thus, “Killers” firmly takes place in a wild, bustling, quite-crazed, busy and still Old West-infused Osage County, Oklahoma of the 1920s. You feel the dust and dirt and oil, the desperation, and you feel the racism, hatred and violence in every shot, as Fisk presents this world as the pure Western craziness that it was.

Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime, faithful editing and filmmaking collaborator, yet again works her exemplary editing magic in “Killers.” Her edits, cuts, transitions and segues are precise, direct, fast-paced when needed, more moderately paced when needed, never intrusive, never relying on gimmicks and cheap tricks, and carried out with the skill, finesse and proper choices that one could only expect from one of the best editors working in film. “Killers'” running time clocks in at three hours and twenty-six minutes, but the movie flies by at an always brisk, entertaining pace.

Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone lead a very large cast in stellar performances. De Niro delivers one of his best, most assured performances in years as the lead psycho lunatic involved in the Osage murders. His true-life character, sleazeball slime businessman William King Hale, is absolutely hateful, deplorable, despicable, nightmarish and villainous, yet De Niro is crazily watchable and mesmerizing in every scene, which is just about the entire film. De Niro has perfected the unique art of portraying horrific, slimy, violent monsters who still remain watchable. Few actors, still, can play two-faced, conniving villains as well as De Niro, and it’s a thrill to see De Niro command and control “Killers” from start to finish. DiCaprio is equally strong as psycho killer and total moron Ernest Burkhart, a backwoods, backwards, uneducated, flat-out lunatic murderer who has no problem killing his own wife, members of his wife’s family, neighbors, community members and even a private detective just to steal money. DiCaprio is not as strong as De Niro in “Killers,” and he never really commands the screen and the movie as amazingly as De Niro, but it’s still interesting, and nauseating and disgusting, too, to watch as Burkhart slowly succumbs deeper into madness and deeper levels of moron-ness as the murders pile up and federal investigators start, finally, poking around.

Lily Gladstone is amazing as Mollie Burkhart, a full-blood Osage woman who unfortunately marries Burkhart. She is proud, strong, independent, smart and savvy, but for some strange reason, she falls for the doofus dirtbag Burkhart. Gladstone ably, strongly presents the complicated mix of conflicting emotions that reside in Mollie, and her understated, but still powerful, presence is impressive.

The rest of the large, strong cast is equally impressive. Jesse Plemons stands out as Tom White, a dogged, determined, straightforward and powerful federal agent who investigates the murders.

It’s important to note that several members of the Osage Nation acted in the film, in supporting and extra roles. Their presence gives the film yet another layer of respectability and credibility.

Additionally, much of the principal photography took place in Osage County –the true-life location of the murders.

Fisk’s period production design excels in all areas, as the sets, costumes, props, scenery, hair and make-up are all exceptionally period-perfect. Filmgoers will never doubt that they are watching events taking place in a rough-and-tumble, dangerous, maddening, conflicted, racist, hateful, greedy and violent Wild West-style, generally redneck, racist and idiotic Oklahoma of the 1920s.

The film’s beautiful, superb and period-appropriate music, songs and overall musical score are exceptional, wonderfully and beautifully composed by yet another longtime Scorsese collaborator—-none other than the brilliant, and brilliantly creative, Robbie Robertson. Alas, Robbie Robertson sadly died on August 9, 2023, at the age of 80. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is dedicated to the memory of the great Robbie Robertson.

But in a much deeper, larger manner, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is, really and truly, dedicated to the memory of the likely hundreds of innocent Osage Nation members who were murdered by those greedy, monstrous, abominable psychos in Osage County, Oklahoma, and to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of indigenous American Indians who were systematically, horribly, horrifically and criminally murdered, raped, displaced, lied to, cheated, ripped off, tortured, jailed and assimilated by the United States and Canadian governments for hundreds of years. Of course, this illegal system of severe human rights violations toward American Indians went largely unpunished and un-prosecuted; was rarely, if ever, taught and explained in U.S. and Canadian schools, colleges and universities; was generally ignored by yahoo racist redneck residents, citizens, educators, law enforcement officials, religious leaders, businessmen, civic and community leaders and others; covered up and denied by racist and lying government officials; and, to this very day in 2023, this dark part of North American history is still not properly taught and discussed in elementary schools, junior and senior high schools, colleges, universities and graduate schools. That is a crime.

According to The New York Times and various other news sources, anywhere from sixty to several hundred innocent members of the Osage Nation were murdered by shootings, bombings and poisonings for their oil-generated wealth from 1918 to 1931 in Osage County, Oklahoma. Hale, Burkhart and conspirators John Ramsey and Kelsie Morrison were arrested, charged and convicted. Most of the murders of Osage Nation members were never prosecuted, though. That is a crime against humanity.

Mollie Burkhart divorced Ernest Burkhart, survived the murderous rampage–which included an attempt by her husband, Ernest Burkhart, to poison her, if you can believe that– and subsequently died in 1937. Her children inherited her estate.

Today, the Osage Nation has a reservation in Oklahoma and has a population of about 47,350, according to the U S. Census Bureau. According to recent news reports, several people are working to create a lasting museum in Osage County that is focused on the Osage Nation murders.

One other interesting aspect to note about the making of “Killers of the Flower Moon:” This new, classic film is the result of impressive hard work by a cast and crew of seasoned, knowledgeable, educated, talented and veteran filmmakers who are, shall we say politely, of a certain age. Martin Scorsese turns 81 years young in November, 2023. Thelma Schoonmaker is 83. Robert De Niro turned 80 in August, 2023. Eric Roth is 78. Jack Fisk is 77. And the late, great Robbie Robertson was in his late 70s when he worked on the film. This says something important. This says that all of those juvenile morons and idiots playing stupid, unprofessional, childish ageist, discriminatory games in society today have absolutely zero idea what on earth they are talking about. This says that any type of generational discrimination is simply stupid. This says that anyone can work, produce and exult in classic, masterful achievements, no matter what age they are. This says that we are all so lucky to still have these masters of film still working and producing for all of us. This says that the adage is true: Age is but a number.

And, most importantly, “Killers of the Flower Moon” delivers an important message that there is no room in this world for racism, cultural and racial hated and violence, and disrespect toward people who are different from you, and there is no room in this world, the spirit world, the world beyond or any other world for any mistreatment of any American Indians or any indigenous people. The great circle of life is for all people, and the only real way for all of us to live through that sacred circle is for all people to be one together, to always love one another, and to live together in peace.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.