Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is so good, it made me mad at Quentin Tarantino.
To explain: Mr. Tarantino, who has always treated each of his films as a Major Event, has created quite the hulabaloo around his upcoming film by claiming it will be his last. His reason? “Most directors’ last films are fucking lousy,” he insists. “Usually their worst movies are their last movies. That’s the case for most of the Golden Age directors that ended up making their last movies in the late ’60s and the ’70s, then that ended up being the case for most of the New Hollywood directors who made their last movies in the late ’80s and the ’90s.”
It’s frustrating that Mr. Tarantino, who prides himself on his second-to-none knowledge of film history, has clung to this half-truth, and continued repeating it. (I personally suspect this is a cover for the fact that making movies is hard fucking work and he wants to spend his time getting high and watching videotapes, and that’s fine; just don’t dress it up as concern for the art form or your legacy or whatever.) His go-to examples are certainly valid; sure, those last few Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder pictures are rough. But the counter-arguments are far more persuasive, and more numerous: Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Sergio Leone, Yazujiro Ozu, Luis Buñuel, William Friedkin, Robert Bresson, Robert Altman, and the director whose inspiration has been most clearly felt in Tarantino’s work: Martin Scorsese, who, at age 80, has just made yet another masterpiece.
Like his previous picture, the similarly sprawling and magnificent The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest is great in a fashion that seems particularly tied to his age and experience. He could not have made these films at 30, or 50, or 60 (Tarantino’s current age). This is the work of a man who has now spent six decades making great movies, for whom that act has become something like second nature; if the 10,000 hours theory is correct, then few filmmakers have spent as much time making, and urgently thinking about, movies. That ease, that expertise, that skill is on display in every one of Killers’ 206 minutes.
Scorsese’s narrative efficiency (he wrote the script with Eric Roth) is staggering; early on, he imparts exposition via a silent movie newsreel, introducing us to the Oklahoma Osage tribe and how they became “the richest people per capita on earth”; that wealth has resulted in a rash of sudden and unsolved deaths, which are dramatized in a lightning-paced montage of co-star Lily Gladstone, in voice-over, reading each victim’s name and age (over black and white footage of them alive), cutting to color footage of the subject on their deathbed, with two words of summary: “No investigation.” There’s more to know, as the story unfolds, but this is the gist of it, conveyed in breathtakingly orderly images and words. Killers is long as hell, but there’s not a wasted moment.
“They’re like buzzards circling our people,” says one of the tribal elders, of the white people who move through and near their orbits, with an eye on their “allotment payments,” or even better, the “head rights” to their land. These terms and their implications become clear as the narrative unfolds; early on, we’re dropped into this world alongside Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and we figure it out as he does. He quickly attaches himself to Mollie (Gladstone), whose family has the head rights to quite a bit of land, and it seems a choice motivated both by financial wherewithal and genuine attraction, which is mutual; she knows he’s a big dumb oaf, but there’s something about him that she likes nevertheless. “Of course he wants money,” she tells her friends, “but he wants to be settled.” She’s complicated, he’s simple, and she likes that he’s so easy to figure out.
That warmth and familiarity fades, however, becoming a portrait of a miserable marriage of lies, betrayal, and worse. As he has throughout their collaboration, Scorsese uses DiCaprio’s star persona to his advantage, savvily subverting our expectations for a central character embodied by the perpetually baby-faced Titanic star, who couldn’t be up to that… could he? But he is, and his evil slowly festers inside him throughout the sprawling story. It’s some of DiCaprio’s best work, particularly a courtroom scene that marks the character’s emotional climax; Scorsese keeps his camera on Ernest as he finally, fully tells the truth, and he doesn’t cut away. He gives the frame over to DiCaprio, and lets him take the character where he needs to go.
This is also the first time Scorsese has directed both of his go-to leading men; it’s usually DiCaprio or De Niro, but the latter is here cast as Ernest’s uncle William Hale, one of the wealthiest and most influential white men in the community. As he did in The Irishman, DeNiro takes the opportunity of collaborating with his friend to remind us how genuinely peerless he is; this is a multi-faceted man, folksy and smart and ruthless, and the way he delivers the line “Blessings, blessings upon your house” will chill you to the bone.
It’s no longer news for DiCaprio or De Niro to do career best work for Scorsese, of course; the real story here is Lily Gladstone’s powerful turn. She’s been one to watch since Certain Women back in 2016, but the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey of this character is eye-opening, and she doesn’t miss a step. The early chemistry between her and DiCaprio is convincing, as it must be; if their feelings don’t ring true, the entire narrative falls to pieces. The deeper we go, the more we must know what she’s feeling — but this is a character socialized to never share those feelings, so Gladstone has to put them across in expressions, reactions, and the very occasional outburst.
Scorsese fills out the cast with colorful character actors (Barry Corbin, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Scott Shepard, Pat Healy), each of whom floats in and just eats; they’re all bringing extra textures and depth to the busy ensemble, but few are as quietly affecting as Jesse Plemons, whose quietly bemused line readings and aw-shucks demeanor are masterfully deployed.
Scorsese and Roth’s script is filled with clever curlicues and flourishes, in which an anecdote or memory will take over the story and push it into a sidebar that always, without fail, pays off. He moves the camera with purpose, always dazzling but never showing off, and shifts tonal gears (from drama to dread to gallows humor and back again) like it’s second nature. Yet even those passages may not prepare the viewer for the fever dream imagery and feel of the last hour, as fire roars in windows and the end of the world feels eminent. (The late Robbie Robertson’s score is like a pulse of dread, and Scorsese wrings every ounce of doom and despair out of the old blues and roots records that creep onto the soundtrack.) Killers cost something like $200 million, but every damn dollar of it is up on screen. The scope, the scale, the ambition — no other filmmaker is doing it like this, and that’s all there is to it.
But this is not merely a question of craft. These films are also grappling with themes and ideas considered over the course of a lifetime — and addressed with particular urgency, considering their author’s awareness of that lifetime’s limits. Death has always loomed over the Scorsese filmography, but never more than it does now. When the central character of Killers is advised, “Don’t do somethin’ you’re gonna regret,” he replies, “I an’t got nothin’ but regret.” That line carries a different weight when it’s written by an 80-year-old man.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is in theaters Friday.