Scorsese kills it with daring, unsparing historical drama 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

“Killers of the Flower Moon” — ★ ★ ★ ★

“You've got a better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian.”

That single shocking sentence succinctly summarizes the essence of Martin Scorsese's daring, unsparing historical drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a well-crafted work of exquisite detail and raw, understated power reuniting the master filmmaker with two of his most celebrated actors, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” adapted from David Grann's nonfiction bestseller, explores the brutal banality of American evil on a grand and epic scale.

Epic themes. Epic settings. Epic camera work. Epic ending.

Even an epic running time of three hours and 26 minutes.

This meditatively measured, but never boring, movie asks us to stay invested in despicable white main characters set against the backdrop of 1920s Oklahoma, where members of the Osage tribe become instantly wealthy when they discover vast oil reserves on their land.

The oil — introduced in a celebratory slow-motion scene filled with jubilant tribe members being showered by black liquid gold — turns them into the richest people per capita on Earth.

With wealth comes the expected desire for expensive cars, clothes, jewelry, houses and servants. And the not unexpected arrival of predatory whites.

An early montage of murdered Indians — accompanied by the repeated phrase “Never investigated” — telegraphs the amoral, unjust world we're about to enter, one ruled by Bill Hale, a big cattle rancher who presents himself as a noble, paternalistic servant to the Osage.

But Hale — chillingly played by De Niro with subtle evil on a level not witnessed since his businessman Satan in “Angel Heart” — devotes himself to ensuring that whites get their dirty hands on the Osage money, no matter what it takes.

Hale's new chief accomplice has just arrived in Fairfax, Oklahoma: His feckless nephew Ernest Burkhart, a morally malleable man meticulously manufactured by a hardened DiCaprio with fixed furrowed brows and a concrete scowl.

He gets a job as a driver for Mollie Kyle (the magnetically radiant Lily Gladstone in a great breakout performance), a smart Osage woman who knowingly calls him a coyote.

“He wants our money,” a family member tells her. She knows how white men have married for profit.

But when Hale suggests his nephew marry Mollie as a good financial investment, Ernest takes up the challenge, smothering her with attention and affection until she finally agrees to marry him. He's handsome with a nice smile.

The thing is, he really does love her. Does that matter? Who holds more sway with him, his wife or his uncle?

These two wonderfully conflicted characters anchor a bleak and terrible true story of bald systemic racism and savage contempt for Native Americans, ironically far more spiritual than their abrupt dive into materialism would suggest.

The bold and seemingly unabated killings begin and threaten Mollie's family members, among them sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Minnie (Jillian Dion) and their suspiciously ill mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal).

Taking a cue from an old-fashioned cowboy western, the cavalry arrives in the form of J. Edgar Hoover's pre-FBI Bureau of Investigation, led by relentless agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), dispatched after a sickly Mollie pleads for help directly to President Calvin Coolidge (Mark Landon Smith). (Note: Fans of the book will know that White has been demoted to a supporting role here, among other changes made by Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth.)

“Killers of the Flower Moon” proves to be both like and unlike anything that Scorsese has done before. It contains echoes of his epic “Gangs of New York” (with DiCaprio), but feels new, fresh, even inspired — not like the recycled elements of his “The Irishman.”

Rounded out by the percussive tom-tom beats of Robbie Robertson's perfectly pitched complementary score, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is one of this year's best films, a virtuoso blend of conscience, conflict and craft.

• • •

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Other: A Paramount Pictures theatrical release. Rated R for language and violence. 206 minutes

Army veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) marries a Native American named Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) for financial gain in Martin Scorsese's "Killers of the Flower Moon." Courtesy of Apple Original Films
Cattle rancher Bill Hale (Robert De Niro) shares a cautious chat with federal investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) in Martin Scorsese's epic "Killers of the Flower Moon." Courtesy of Apple Original Films
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