Killers of the Flower Moon

Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone star in the epic true-crime saga Killers of the Flower Moon, which sees Martin Scorsese exploring the shameful treatment of the United States' Indigenous population

Film Review by Alex Barrett | 17 Oct 2023
  • Killers of the Flower Moon
Film title: Killers of the Flower Moon
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Scott Shepherd
Release date: 20 Oct
Certificate: 15

Early on in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, images of Osage people flitter by while a voiceover recounts their names and age at the time of their deaths. They are victims of the so-called Reign of Terror. The mysterious circumstances surrounding their demises, we're told, were not investigated. It's a haunting, gut-wrenching sequence that recalls the onscreen death notices that featured in Scorsese's previous film, The Irishman (2019). And like in The Irishman, there's a feeling in Killers of the Flower Moon that the spectre of death hangs in the air, imbuing the film with a startling emotional core. We can but watch as the devastating action unfolds. 

Time will tell if mortality will become the defining theme of Scorsese's late period, but Killers of the Flower Moon certainly fits the change of pace that began with Silence (2016) – a shift marked by a less ostentatious aesthetic and a more contemplative mood (these elements have occurred before in Scorsese's oeuvre, but never with such consistency). Still, there are also echoes of earlier films – not only narrative reverberations from crime films like GoodFellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), but elements familiar from Raging Bull (1980), Kundun (1997), The Aviator (2004) and even Hugo (2011). If Killers of the Flower Moon feels at times like a summation of an outstanding career, perhaps the biggest touchstone is the underrated Gangs of New York (2002), which likewise weaves a tale of twisted familial dynamics while probing the foundations of modern America. 

Here, the focus is the racism, exploitation and genocide that befell the Native American tribe of the Osage Nation. At the turn of the 20th century, oil money turned them into the richest people per capita in the world and, needless to say, it wasn't long before white people buzzed around them like vultures, clawing at their wealth by any means necessary. 

Scorsese centres his tale on Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who takes a job working for his uncle William (Robert De Niro) after returning to Oklahoma from the battles of World War I. Soon, he falls in love with Mollie (a film-stealing Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who asserts a stoic grace amid rugged masculinity. But behind the scenes of their romance are dark machinations. William is a whispering devil, evil incarnate, manoeuvring Ernest to get at Mollie's family fortune. Once the plan begins, people start dying…  

Based on a true story, Killers of the Flower Moon is not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit: a penetrating exploration of hubris and fall, of trust and betrayal, of evil, sin and greed. If those sound like scriptural terms, well, this is a Martin Scorsese Picture – and it's not without biblical grandeur. Running at 206 minutes, it's a staggering achievement, combining an enthralling narrative with a sympathetic and detailed exploration of the history of the Osage Nation. It's been touted as an 'epic western crime saga', and if the last three words feel at times like camouflage for 'psychological character drama', there's certainly no denying the first. Quite simply, this is cinema at its finest.

Released 20 Oct by Paramount; certificate 15