Killers of the Flower Moon review: Lily Gladstone’s the real star of Scorsese’s historical epic

Killers of the Flower Moon review: Lily Gladstone’s the real star of Scorsese’s historical epic

For decades now there has been a routine to the release of a new Martin Scorsese film (or ‘picture’, as he somewhat quaintly still likes to call them). First it plays at a film festival where fanboy film critics fall over each other to heap praise upon its cinephile-friendly visual references and its “layers” and explain that it’s not really a film about x, it’s a film about y.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s 2006’s The Departed (which The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called “his best picture since GoodFellas”) or 2019’s The Irishman (which The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called “his best picture since GoodFellas”): by the time most people get to see any new Scorsese film they have been bludgeoned into submission by posters collapsing under the weight of five star reviews, convinced themselves that an over-three-hours run time must automatically mean epic rather than bloated and got excited about the greatest living director’s latest and maybe – just maybe! – greatest.

Much has, as usual, been made of said latest-and-maybe-greatest’s length. But Killers of The Flower Moon is in fact three minutes shorter than Scorsese’s last, the aforementioned Irishman. Plus, he’s only made one film in the last twelve years that clocks in at under three hours (Silence, which was still 2 hours and 41 minutes and felt about twice that anyway).

There is of course nothing wrong with a long running time if required and no one has more right than Martin Scorsese to discern such things. So does Killers of The Flower Moon warrant its 206 minute duration, especially when you could watch both The King of Comedy and After Hours – his two most underrated films – in the same amount of time?

Well, yes. Scorsese’s 26th feature film zips along nicely, is never boring and never forgets to be entertaining. Its period sets are as lavish as you would expect, exhibiting a level of detail that is best drunk in on the big screen, rather than when it arrives at its final resting place on Apple TV+ in a few months’ time. The score – a last cinematic waltz for the late Robbie Robertson – is absolutely fantastic, particularly the recurring, minimal, two note retro-bass motif that effectively ramps up the tension at key points.

And this is one hell of a story. Adapted from American journalist David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name – with the subtitle The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – it takes us back to the early 1920s. Big oil deposits have been discovered beneath the Oklahoma land that the indigenous American Osage people call home, meaning that they have, as is customary for anyone ever who finds themselves in close proximity to oil, become very rich very quickly.

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple TV+)
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon (Apple TV+)

We then meet a soldier called Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning from the First World War, who has come to town to connect with his wealthy uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale quickly inducts his nephew into his despicable doings, suggesting to him that he might want to seduce, then marry the indigenous woman Mollie Buckhart (Lily Gladstone) so he can get his hands on the rights to her family’s oil.

Possibly because Ernest looks like Leonardo DiCaprio, he makes swift work of winning her affections and soon they are married with kids. Then her family members start dying, one by one, in increasingly mysterious circumstances, each death taking Ernest and his uncle one step closer to the black gold.

There is one niggle. Despite the showy casting of the leading men, it becomes obvious very quickly that the real meat in Killers of The Flower Moon is the women’s stories. Yes, in order to get a film like this greenlit with this kind of budget – $200 million – in this day and age you are going to need some DiCaprio level star power, and DiCaprio is not going to take a supporting role. But that results in an over-abundance of scenes with him and De Niro endlessly evil-y conspiring, and some compelling female characters who don’t get anywhere near enough screen time.

As Mollie, Gladstone is the star of the show, taking by far the most interesting, conflicted character and turning in a performance of aloof, understated brilliance. She is not alone, either. Mollie’s sister Anna – played by relative newcomer Cara Jade Myers – is a hurricane drunk who brings chaos wherever she goes. The simple Ernest (DiCaprio’s yokel accent starts to grate after a while) and the one-dimensionally sinister Hale suffer greatly by comparison.

Perhaps this rankles because off-screen there has been a great deal of look-how-in-touch-with-modern-sensibilities-I-am peacocking from both Scorsese and DiCaprio. In his Vogue interview – a joint interview with Gladstone – the latter went to great lengths to detail how he asked for a rewrite of the script because he felt that it “wasn’t immersed in the Osage story.”

DiCaprio and Gladstone’s joint Vogue cover (Craig McDean)
DiCaprio and Gladstone’s joint Vogue cover (Craig McDean)

Originally, the lead character he was going to play was the FBI agent Tom White – a supporting role now filled by the always-excellent Jesse Plemons – but he switched when the decision was made to focus instead on the relationship between Ernest and Mollie. Scorsese, meanwhile, told TIME magazine that he at some point realised he was “making a movie about all the white guys.” Noble realisations on the part of both, certainly, but the truth is that Killers of The Flower Moon still feels like the guys are the main event.

That said, this is a much, much better film than The Irishman, which unapologetically focused on the male gangsters with whom Scorsese will forever be most closely associated. It looks beautiful, features a wealth of great performances and tells a tale that needed to be told, very well indeed. It is – genuinely – his best since The Wolf of Wall Street. Not a line that would make it on to those posters, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.

206 mins, cert 15

In cinemas from October 20