Killers of the Flower Moon at Cannes review: Martin Scorsese has made an arresting masterpiece

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio  (handout)
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio (handout)

Everyone loves Martin Scorsese. But has he made a truly great movie since Goodfellas? He’s churned out technically-brilliant true-crime thrillers (Casino, Gangs of New York, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman) and dabbled in other genres (The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Hugo, Silence). Yet something’s always been missing. Till now.

60 year-old Quentin Tarantino says he’s quitting the directing game because he doesn’t want to become “this old man who’s out of touch.” What a plonker. Killers of the Flower Moon suggests film-makers should keep on keeping on. I’d even put my cowboy boot on the line and declare this (Scorsese’s first foray into the genre) one of the best Westerns ever made and almost certainly the best film of 2023 so far.

Sure, those with squirrel bladders will be punished by the 3 hour, 26 minute running time. But since when did pleasure come pain-free?

An adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction best-seller, it’s set in 1920s Oklahoma and traces a grim and fiendishly complicated conspiracy to bamboozle and bump off Native Americans. Members of the Osage Nation (wealthy as a result of living on oil-rich land) are dropping like flies, and no one’s doing anything about it.

Avuncular cattle rancher, William Hale (Robert De Niro), encourages his nephew, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), to learn the tribe’s Siouan language and marry beleaguered Osage heiress, Mollie (Lily Gladstone). Meanwhile Mollie’s mother, and one of Mollie’s sisters, are dying from a mysterious disease. It’s possible they’re being poisoned, but by whom?

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio (handout)
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio (handout)

This movie contains shootings, explosions and umpteen mangled bodies. There’s even a small but crucial role for a Catholic priest. I guess you could say our 80 year old director is in his comfort zone. What makes this feel like new territory is the focus on Mollie. This woman is smart, witty and assertive, but ignores all the red flags the universe sends her. Does Mollie (a devout Catholic) enjoy suffering? That’s the million dollar question that Gladstone’s subtle performance answers. The 36 year-old actress, by the way, has Olivia de Havilland’s immaculate cheekbones and Ingrid Bergman’s warmth. When her character screams, it will chill every one of your bones.

De Niro is just as sensational. As for DiCaprio, his mouth gets a tad twitchy towards the end (à la Marlon Brando, in The Godfather) but he dazzles in a quietly nasty exchange with Mollie’s brother-in-law, Bill (musician Jason Isbell, making his acting debut).

Scorsese serves up so many arresting images (like a slo-mo shot of Osage men, whirling through plumes of oil) but it’s the way he messes with our heads, sometimes within scenes, which is so impressive. That ability to shift gear extends to Robbie Robertson’s playful soundtrack (at one point, I could have sworn I was listening to classic Blues band Canned Heat), and most importantly to the finale, which honours the anarchic and satirical spirit of Scorsese’s heroes, Powell and Pressburger.

Scorsese is well aware that, by turning a horrific set of murders into juicy entertainment, he’s become part of the story (his cameo appearance is perfect). This movie is bound to be controversial. And the genius who made it wouldn’t want it any other way.

Killers of the Flower Moon screens at Cannes on Saturday May 20 and will be released in cinemas on October 6, before streaming on Apple TV+