There are plenty of murders that go unsolved in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, but there is no mystery as to who commits them. The identities of the killers the title refers to are obvious from the get-go. In 1920s Oklahoma, many Osage men and women began turning up dead. It's done at the hands of not criminal masterminds but bumbling, greedy white men. Scorsese never romanticizes the prowess of the killers, he treats them as incompetent men full of arrogance. When the federal government finally does pay attention to what is going on, it takes no time for them to identify who is killing the Osage people. This is because they never thought they needed to hide their tracks. One character remarks that one would be more likely to be arrested for killing a dog than an Indian. The power of this masterful film comes from never shying away from this ugly part of American history.
I would like to address the film's length early on. Yes, the film is three and half hours which is a long sit. However, the film moves at a fantastic pace. It rarely drags and the script, adapted from the acclaimed book by David Grann, has plenty in it to fill up this time with essential content. No scene feels like filler. Killers of the Flower Moon earns its length. Scorsese uses that length in powerful ways. It emphasizes how long the abuse of the Osage people went on. There is a sense of staggering indifference as you watch the film, begging someone to care about these crimes. No one does for hours and the effect is enormous.
At the center of this tough film is Mollie Burkhart, played wonderfully by Lily Gladstone. Her family and the Osage people were moved from their home in Kansas in the 1870s to live on what was thought to be a worthless piece of land in Oklahoma. Instead, the land was one of the richest oil deposits in America and soon the Osages become the richest people in the nation. For a while, white Oklamomans' would get payback by overcharging the Osage. However, by the 1920s, murders of the tribe began, including many members of Mollie's family. As those events unfold, she begins to fall for her driver Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), a war vet who has returned to work for his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro). Ernest seems legit in his feeling for Mollie but his uncle, often referred to as King, has placed him there in order to get them to marry and have rights to their land.
King wants to find a legal way to get the money he wants and begins to insert himself in Ernest and Mollie's relationship. He is constantly concerend about who will have the rights to the land. Thus, the killings begin to increase, becoming more brazen over time. Local authorities could care less. It takes two attempts to get the federal government to notice what is going on. They send Tom White (Jessie Plemons) from the newly formed FBI.
Flowers of the Moon brings together Scorsese's two leading men, DiCaprio and De Niro. Both have rarely been better. Scorsese uses DiCaprio's looks to subvert the idea that he is heroic here. He is first dressed in his Army uniform and then as a cowboy, both mythic symbols of heroism. Scorsese begins to chip away at that early on revealing the true heart of Ernest. De Niro sizzles as the charming but menacing King. He is never not the central villain but one understands why he gets away with so much. However, the film hangs on Gladstone's deeply moving performance. She embodies the strength and humanity of Mollie, who is caught between two worlds. She gets several scenes that stun and this will mark her career going forward.
Scorsese brings all of his career to the table here. You get the ambition we have seen in his epics, the fascination with crime that has fueled so much of his career, and the exploration of love he has dabbled with. However, there is something new here which is remarkable given he is 80 years old. He turns the film, in its final moments, to a critique on the glorification of violence as if to reckon with his own career. It is a stunning ending to a masterpiece.