The way to make a movie better than the book that preceded it is to find the central perspectives of the story and make that the fixed point the rest of the story revolves around. That’s Martin Scorsese’s method in adapting David Gram’s non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017). Gorgeously drawn from early cinema and the bloody pages of history, Scorsese begins with a cinematic framework: the movie starts as a silent movie with intertitles. Then it moves through a sweeping history lesson but with a central framing difference. The story is still about the foundational crimes and investigative units of American history, yes. Still, it moves through history from the perspective of the Osage people, the People of Middle Wars. It so deeply invests in a rich cultural history where an indigenous tribe with exponential wealth draws a scheming organized crime into their orbit. With a big heart and overt specificity, it begins to tell a fuller story about the experience of the Indigenous American without ever losing that central perspective.
In a Scorsese movie starring his two most prominent collaborators, Robert De Niro and Leonardo Dicaprio, Lily Gladstone is the singular star. From a deep well of compassion and layered understanding, Gladstone’s Molly emerges as one of Scorsese’s best-drawn characters. For a filmmaker who has addressed male toxicity and anger in some of the best movies about those topics, Scorsese does that again, but finally marries that mode of filmmaking with another complex framework he’s capable of. Much like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), so many decades later, Scorsese finds a top-caliber performance that centers women in a way that is not generally discussed in his filmography. What’s so profound about Gladstone is how much she can convey, how completely the weight of her emotions flood the screen, and how everyone around her is given refreshing new ways to work with an old collaborator. If you saw First Cow (2019), the best Western of our time, you knew it was a matter of years until Gladstone became the next big thing and now that is here, with Killers of the Flower Moon, the second-best Western of our time.
The other primary contributor is Rodrigo Prieto, who behind the camera, envisions the Great Plains with such terrific weight and balance, that it feels like one of our most resonant cinematic spaces. The lensing of the plains, specifically, is tied to the way the Osage people identify with the land. As White settlers arrive with ambition and greed, that framing constantly adjusts to what it is framing, as steady blocking and framing decisions tell their own internal story. Having just shot Barbie with the wonderful whimsy of a Hollywood Golden Age musical with modern touches, Prieto lends an even more invigorating camera to Killers of the Flower Moon, finding texture and beauty everywhere, meeting the possibilities at their logical conclusion for how good a Scorsese movie can look. What’s so stunning is how the movie moves at an audiovisual level, with Scorsese and Prieto’s visions enriched by Robbie Robertson’s thrumming score, which walks the knife’s edge of gently escalating tension, and gives the film a sonic motif which is partly responsible for making the 3.5-hour runtime a graceful and steady move from formal beauty into a cold blood true crime story.
We do not address it often enough when it matters in a movie: the costume design is so important to why Killers of the Flower Moon works. You could, of course, create the same basic text within the traditional Hollywood lens of how Indigenous communities dress, and it feels like it would tank the whole movie. The film’s costuming success is due to multiple award-winning costume designer Jacqueline West, who, like many aspects of the total composition, made direct contact with members of the Osage Nation and created hundreds of custom-made outfits and modeled the most gorgeous Pendleton blankets out of the collected film and photographs documented by the Osage people.
This is also why the film resonates so directly with this American past. As the Osage people were the most prosperous people of their time, they also had the greatest access to materials by which to document themselves. This is how Scorsese’s new movie leverages a great book and makes it an astounding ascendant document of a place and time. The film is drawn stylishly from the way the Osage people envision themselves, their history, and the white interlopers who came to take everything they had.
You can envision the holistic success of this movie as the reason why the choice of director matters so much. It’s unlikely anyone else could make this movie. It is personal to Scorsese. When he read the book, he had to make the movie, and he spent every year since the book’s release getting it made. The first steps are the most important ones, as Scorsese made direct contact and first sold the idea to Geoffrey Standing Bear, chief of the Osage Nation. This informs every choice made after this contact and the film feels authentic because of how it is sourced from such primary members of the culture it represents.
Scorsese is the right director for many reasons but the primary among them is his familiarity and historical invention of the American Crime Story. No director has done more for fictional crime stories than Scorsese, so it makes a world of sense that he feels this smart impulse to return to the origins of American crime. Almost making a penance for how Gangs of New York (2002) went so sideways, now interlinking the history of American crime with the history of the FBI. That is such a crucial point. As a Western in every definition, the genre sandbox always plays with this very idea. What is the end of the West? In this movie, the dissolution of the cowboy way of life is organized investigation, as a response to the presence of organized crime.
We can only work around it so long but here are Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, who get to share some career highlight moments together after having been independently Scorsese’s most reliable collaborators. Their placement in the story begs the question of who wasn’t complicit in the setup of these crimes. What happens is that DiCaprio’s character comes back to town after a war and is encouraged by De Niro to seek wealth by marrying into a prosperous Osage family, to then knock off members of the family one by one through a series of financially motivated murders, until he is the lone benefactor. When he started, there was a rash of Osage murders already. None were going investigated. So it seemed to be the perfect crime. And for a while, it was, until J. Edgar Hoover moved his newly founded FBI into Osage territory with force and led a very serious investigation into entire families of wealth going missing in what had previously been a series of off-the-grid murders.
Killers of the Flower Moon is rigorous filmmaking, captivating the whole way through. You do not feel the long runtime because everything on-screen is working in so many layers, that there is never a dull moment. You cannot cut any pieces out of the movie and still have the same staggering effect. Likewise, you could not add very much – despite what else is there in the book – and still have a successful Scorsese crime story. All the pieces fit here and led by the riveting performance of Gladstone and her collaborators (they do not belong to Scorsese when she is on the screen with them), we have all the makings of a timeless Western, built and reflected from the history of crime cinema, and then reframed in an entirely new way by one of crime film’s most outstanding pioneers.
Scorsese has gone on in interviews saying how as his final years close in, he is filled with all of the stories he has to tell and knows how to do it. Time is the only barrier and in Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese eludes time altogether by bringing together a faultless recipe for craft. There are no missteps here because Scorsese knows there is no time for missteps. There is only this moment and this movie that he had to make and when you’re watching it, you know exactly why. If The Irishman (2019) felt like a completion of Scorsese’s Gangster story, suddenly it begins to feel like Killers of the Flower Moon is that and even more, that the box has been reopened and given an entirely new situation and reframing of what crime stories mean, this time centering around the victims.