Thursday, October 19, 2023

Greed and murder on Osage land

  First things first: Credit director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Joe Roth with trying to wrestle David Grann's best-selling 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon, into a viable screenplay, not because they have succeeded brilliantly but because they're bound to shine additional light on a neglected chapter of American history.
   Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of a wealthy white man who viewed himself as a benefactor of Oklahoma's Osage people while he schemed to steal the wealth the tribe acquired when oil was unexpectedly discovered on its land in 1897.
    Scorsese teams with frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio for immersion into a world of betrayal, deceit, and unmitigated greed, taking a deep dive into period-piece trappings thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Preito and production designer Jack Fisk. 
    The core story is too complex to reiterate in a review, so I'll give only a brief outline:
     De Niro's Bill "King" Hale connives to find a "legal" way to steal oil revenues from the Osage. Hale enlists the help of his nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), a returning World War I veteran who treats his uncle like a mentor.
    Hale tells dim-bulb Ernest that if he were to marry an Osage woman, he'd put himself in line to inherit her wealth should she die before he does. In Fairfax, Okla., marriage bred thoughts of murder among unscrupulous whites.
      As Hale and his cohorts saw it, the Osage needed help dying. 
      A character without a moral center, Ernest falls for Mollie (Lily Gladstone) but soon recognizes that he's married into money. When his uncle leans on him to keep the money in the family, he's not talking about Mollie's family. 
       Mysterious, tender, and balancing life between two cultures (Osage and Catholicism), Gladstone gives a memorable performance. As a diabetic, Mollie spends the last half of the movie languishing in bed, as Ernest injects her with supposed doses of insulin, augmented by drugs Hale says will “calm her down.”
       Flower Moon is littered with murders, all of them prompted by racism and greed. Even at that, the movie doesn't show the full scope of the crimes against the Osage. Many of the Osage took ill with something corrupt doctors mysteriously called "wasting disease."
       Early on, Scorsese shows how the Osage reacted to their newfound wealth, enjoying the same excesses that whites might have indulged in given similar circumstances. Men bought flashy new cars. Women donned fashionable dresses, and a sense of Jazz Age inhibition took hold.
       Mollie's sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers) becomes a wild child of the age, a fiercely independent party girl destined to become a victim.
       Hale's strange blend of  righteous posturing ("a friend to the Osage") and evil make for an interesting combination. De Niro gives Hale a clenched nasty quality, accented by spectacles and button-down period attire. 
       DiCaprio has a more difficult task because he's walking a fine line between Ernest's oft-declared love of money and devotion to his wife and family. Ernest plays a role in the murder of Mollie's sister and her husband and he's generally in league with his uncle.
      Sporting a perpetual scowl, DiCaprio's Ernest eventually realizes  he's selling his soul. He does it anyway. 
      I'd say that neither actor totally blends into the proceedings; it's almost impossible for them not to dominate the movie.
      The white actors speak with Oklahoma accents that may make you think you've stumbled into a Cormack McCarthy novel;  Scorsese and Roth may try a little too hard to capture the rhythms of the American West.
      Osage women are represented by Mollie's sisters (Jillian Dion,  MeyersJanae Collins) and by Mollie's mother (Tantoo Cardinal), a woman who makes no bones about mistrusting white ways.
      When an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons's Tom White) arrives to investigate the murders in the movie's third hour, the story gains some much-needed steam. White turns up long after the Osage had begged Washington to help solve crimes local law enforcement, under Hill's sway, ignored.
      The subtitle of Grann's book reads, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  The second part of the title doesn't receive much attention here, leaving Plemons to play an ordinary man who gets the best of people who thought they easily could outwit him.
       A through line of the detection, trial and punishment unfolds, albeit with wobbles. After his arrest, Ernest waffles about whether to testify against his uncle, supervised reunions between Ernest and Mollie take place, and other developments slow the march toward legal justice -- or a 1920s attenuated version of it.
        An epilogue in the form of a recreated true crime radio broadcast about the murders takes the movie into another dimension that not only robs the finale of some of its potency but introduces a new subject, media exploitation of crime.
        Scorsese could have devoted more time to the workings of the Osage Tribal Council and to the Osage themselves, and his movie is steeped more in mournful sadness than outrage, which tamps down its overall dramatic fire. 
         I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese may already have done that by making the movie three-and-a-half hours long, but I wouldn't call the movie a masterwork. Because we're talking about Scorsese and an important subject, that pretty much sums up what I have to say.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was happy to find that you are still in the game sir. I was born and raised in Denver Co. As a teen, and a young man, I made it a point to read your reviews before seeing a movie. It was a very rare thing for you and I to agree about a movie. So much so, that I would be very confident of enjoying any movie that you didn't like. I have read your review of Killers ot Flower Moon. You still read the same. I will see the movie this Sat. I am very curious to see how much I may have changed. Again, good to see you still kicking.