Why Killers of the Flower Moon should win the best picture Oscar

<span>A radical film made by a consummate film-maker …Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon.</span><span>Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Apple</span>
A radical film made by a consummate film-maker …Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon.Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Apple

Ever since he started making films, 60-odd years ago, Martin Scorsese has always wanted to make a western; instead, he may have killed the genre. And that’s no small thing for this most American of forms. Over the past century, westerns have cemented the founding myths of American identity; how white settlers subjugated and massacred the continent’s indigenous population and tamed the wild west, with God and guns (and cinema) on their side. So it takes guts to unpick that mythology with a true story of just how evil and racist white Americans really were – especially in a political climate where such histories are being actively suppressed in the US. We’ve had plenty of “revisionist” westerns in recent years; you could call this a destructionist western. It cuts to the dark heart of colonialist greed and capitalist corruption on which America was really founded. In terms of revolutionary cinema, nothing else in this year’s Oscar crop can compete.

Related: ‘Sin is fun!’ Martin Scorsese on brutality, love – and his rebirth on TikTok

For the uninitiated, the setting is 1920s Oklahoma, where the discovery of oil on their land made the Osage Nation the richest people on the planet. The fact that they were required by law to have white guardians to help them manage their wealth is just the beginning of the injustice heaped upon them here. Robert De Niro’s two-faced patriarch William “King” Hale, hatches a plan for his dim nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) to marry Osage heiress Mollie (Lily Gladstone), then systematically bump off her family and seize her oil rights – aided by pretty much the entire white community. Blinded by love, and wealth, Mollie and her people take far too long to figure out what’s really going on.

Beyond the radicalism of the story itself, the sheer scale, scope and stamina of Killers make many a younger film-maker look timid and weak. Some have criticised the film’s three-and-a-half-hour runtime as overindulgent, but it gives the movie time to slowly marinate in the madness and moral decay. By the time Ernest is injecting himself with the poison he’s been administering to Mollie, the two of them lying on the bed in a narcotic haze, as fire lights up the night sky outside, we’re almost untethered from reality completely. Until Jesse Plemons’ cowboy FBI agent rolls into town to break the spell and restore some sanity.

Scorsese is such a consummate film-maker it’s easy to take the movie’s craftsmanship for granted: the flawlessly grimy period detail, the roving camerawork, the painterly compositions, the flourishes of violence, the striking faces of even minor characters, the ominous, throbbing score – courtesy of the late Robbie Robertson. And at the heart of it all, DiCaprio and Gladstone commit to portraying the contradictions and self-deceptions of their bad romance. Gladstone, especially, gives us a performance the likes of which we’ve never really seen – beguilingly cool and composed, but palpably vulnerable under the surface. Even for the closing “what happened next?” coda, where most films would end in a flurry of expository text, Scorsese mounts an old-timey radio show recording – a nod, no doubt, to his own role in mediating history. This old dog is still learning new tricks.

Despite its authentic and respectful portrayals of Osage culture, some have criticised Killers for centring the white folks, but as Scorsese has been the first to point out, it’s not his place to speak for the Native American experience; all he can do is use his creative capital, and the celebrity of his lead actors, to shine a light on a shameful episode of American history that’s been largely forgotten (though not by the Osage themselves, of course). Nobody can forget it now. Killers of the Flower Moon has literally changed history. How many films can say that?