Killers of the Flower Moon review – Scorsese’s magnificent period epic is an instant American classic

Fate has smiled on the Osage Indian nation, out in Oklahoma. The reservation sits on an oasis of black gold; the First Nation people have become oil multimillionaires. They bump along the dirt roads in chauffeur-driven Buicks, play golf on the grassland and take private planes for a spin.

But this newfound fortune brings danger; they want to watch out they’re not killed. The history of the west, after all, is one of exploitation and slaughter.

The 1920s Osage murders provided the spark for David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller, which lifted the lid on hundreds of unexplained deaths. Now Grann’s book forms the basis for Martin Scorsese’s magnificent period epic, a saga of industrialised gangsterism in America’s wide open spaces, forcefully played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone.

This is Scorsese’s first picture at the Cannes film festival since 1985’s After Hours. It’s also the richest, strongest movie he’s made in nearly 30 years.

Back from the war, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) needs money, a fresh start and perhaps a young wife. His uncle, William Hale (De Niro), furnishes him with all three. Hale is a cattle baron and therefore already rich.

But one fortune’s not enough – perhaps it never quite is – and so he steers Ernest towards Mollie (Lily Gladstone), who holds the “headrights” to the oil deposits on her land. If Ernest marries Mollie, then he and Hale promptly gain control of the estate. What Mollie gets from the arrangement is more open to question.

“Coyote wants money,” smiles Mollie, rumbling Ernest’s game right away. But Scorsese effectively shows that her position is tenuous and how, despite their riches, the Osage know that they need to keep their white patrons on side. Also, Mollie is diabetic and needs regular doses of insulin. Osage women, Hale explains kindly, never seem to live to a ripe old age.

De Niro’s on powerhouse form as big Uncle Bill Hale, a man who combines the folksy authority of Lyndon Johnson with the steely twinkle of Bill Cosby. It’s a performance so potent that it might have unbalanced a lesser movie.

Scorsese, though, simply makes it part of the mix, another instrument in a mighty orchestra, complemented by DiCaprio, Gladstone and Jesse Plemons as a foursquare federal investigator. Killers of the Flower Moon is monumentally long (206 minutes) and moves at an unhurried pace, but it knows where it’s going and barely a second is wasted. It’s sinuous and old-school, an instant American classic; almost Steinbeckian in its attention to detail and its banked, righteous rage.

No man, obviously, regards himself as a monster. Even those who play God claim to do it out of love. And so it is with Bill Hale, who purports to care deeply for the Osage, even as they struggle with alcoholism and depression and the theft of their tribal lands; even as the bodies appear to be piling up by the day.

“I love them, but in the turning of the earth, they’re gone,” he sighs, at the point in the film when the storm clouds start massing. Their time is over, he believes, while his is just beginning.

The realisation that the fossil fuel underfoot is made of so much rotting matter only adds to the sense that Scorsese is weaving an alternative American creation myth here.

Killers of the Flower Moon plays out as a muscular, pitch-black tragedy about how the west was really won, recasting Eden as a barren grassland where the only fruit is crude oil and the blood on the ground plants the seeds for the future.