A towering Robert De Niro, an against-type Leonardo DiCaprio and a magnetic Lily Gladstone shine in the director’s gripping account of a shocking episode in US history
There’s a perennial fascination in the films of Martin Scorsese with the notion of power – the structures of it, the layers to it, the flow of it. But it’s not so much the individual at the top of the ladder who seems to intrigue the director, but rather those a couple of rungs down. Characters such as dogged journeyman contract killer Frank Sheeran in The Irishman, or foot soldier Henry Hill in Goodfellas, clinging by his fingernails to the edge of the mob’s inner circle. And now, in Scorsese’s masterful adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon, there’s hapless Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), the dull-edged nephew of machiavellian cattle rancher William Hale (a towering, treacherous Robert De Niro), the mastermind behind an epidemic of murders and a wholesale grab of land, resources and money.
The early 1920s, in the town of Gray Horse, in Osage County, Oklahoma, is like any other period or place in the US, in that money and power are inextricably linked. What’s different here is, owing to a quirk of geological fate, the money is not concentrated in the pockets of the white community, but rather within the Osage Native Americans after the discovery of vast reserves of oil in their reservation. There’s a frenzied gold rush atmosphere in the town; the camera whirls in a madcap waltz past brawling oil workers jostling for employment, and cynical operators looking to prise the Osage from their wealth. And then there’s Ernest. Fresh out of the army and not fit for any job that requires physical exertion – or mental, for that matter – he washes up at the door of his prosperous uncle (“You can call me king,” says Hale, in a tone that suggests that there’s little choice in the matter). Hale realises that he can make use of his pliable, docile nephew. He puts him to work in a moneymaking scheme that soon amasses a considerable body count within the Osage people.