Martin Scorsese is the winner of multiple awards over the course of his prolific career. With nine nominations for the Academy Award for Best Director, he is tied with Steven Spielberg as the most-nominated living director of all time, second only to William Wyler‘s 12 nominations overall.
Scorsese has won only once, in 2007, for “The Departed.” Spielberg, by contrast, won for “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
Scorsese won the Best Directing Oscar award for his film The Departed in 2007. That doesn’t seem like enough, when you consider that Scorsese directed nine films that went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), Hugo (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Irishman (2019). Of the directors still working, even Spielberg tips his hat to Scorsese. (Scorsese actually taught directors Spike Lee and Oliver Stone in film school in New York City.)
Given the fact that, despite 9 nominations, Martin Scorsese has only won once, we can assume that “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be Scorsese’s tenth nomination. Given his prominence and how often he has been an “also ran” in the Best Director category, this could well be Lucky Number Ten for Best Director.
The many times that Scorsese was nominated but did not win should weigh heavily when the Academy gets ready to vote this year. Scorsese, born in 1942, is now 81 years old . He is acknowledged as one of the seminal figures in American cinema. Some (most notably the “Wall Street Journal,” which savaged “Killers of the Flower Moon”) may not be as inclined to give the man his due, but I think the picture has a good shot at Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Costuming, Music and possibly Best Supporting Actor. If it snags all of those (and it could lose some acting awards to other contenders like “Oppenheimer”), can Best Picture be far behind ?
Will the Academy reward the legendary Scorsese for his directing of the sprawling tale “Killers of the Flower Moon?” I suspect they will, although there are nay-sayers who have dissed the Master and suggested he is out of touch. (This doesn’t surprise me, given what happened to me this year, my 20th year reviewing at CIFF, but that’s a story for another day.)
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a $200,000,000 undertaking that showcases Robert DeNiro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone. There are many other notable cast members, including John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser and Jesse Plemmons, plus quite a few names in music, who have small roles. Fraser does a not-that-great job, shouting his dialogue unnecessarily, and Lithgow’s part is very small, but the contributions of the actresses who portray Mollie’s sisters and mother more than make up for the underwhelming nature of the Fraser/Lithgow turns. Cara Jade Myers, who plays Mollie’s wild sister Anna Kyle Brown is particularly good (Best Supporting Actress?) and the actress playing Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) and JaNae Collins, who played Rita, are uniformly excellent.
Among the musicians in the film were Pete Yorn, who plays Acie Kirby, the munitions expert. Yorn wrote the score for the 2000 film “Me, Myself & Irene” but had never acted previously. Country singer Sturgill Simpson makes an appearance as Henry Grammer. Jason Isbell, four-time Grammy award winner and former member of the Drive-by Truckers and the 400 Unit plays Bill Smith, the snake-like husband of two of the murdered Osage women. Jack White, winner of 12 Grammies, has appeared in several other films. Charlie Musselwhite portrays Alvin Reynolds, one of the key informants who spills the beans on the conspiracy that DeNiro’s character William King Hale has set in motion.
Critics have lauded Lily Gladstone, but Robert DeNiro is great as the uber-snake William King Hale. I admired DeNiro’s performance more than that of DiCaprio, but it was great fun seeing these two onscreen in a father/son fashion, which hadn’t occurred since 1993’s “This Boy’s Life,” when DiCaprio was only 18 years old. (Released when DiCaprio was 19.)
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is based on the book of the same name by David Grann. An impressive amount of research has gone into this labor of love. You can’t help but feel that, like Marlon Brando before him, this is Scorsese’s personal protest against the historic mistreatment of Native Americans. One character with a substantial speaking part, Paul Red Eagle, is played by the current Osage National Minerals Council Chairman, Everett Waller.
Set in 1920s Oklahoma, “Killers of the Flower Moon” focuses on a series of murders of Osage members and relations in the Osage Nation after oil was found on tribal land. Tribal members had retained mineral rights on their reservation. Whites sought to steal the Osage wealth by systematically murdering them.
In “Killers of the Flower Moon,” writer and journalist David Grann offered an intimately detailed account of a little-known but devastating chapter in American history: the Osage Reign of Terror. This period lasted five years from 1921 to 1926 during which upwards of twenty Osage Indians were murdered in cold blood for access to their valuable shares of oil money. There are also references to the Tulsa, Oklahoma murders on Black Wall Street (Juneteenth) and the KKK is depicted onscreen in fleeting parade scenes. Principal photography took place in Osage and Washington counties, Oklahoma, between April and October 2021. Pawhuska, Oklahoma, stood in for Fairfax in the film.
The scope of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is epic. It covers a lot of history and does so with admirable pacing despite the film’s length. Although it is 206 minutes long, eclipsing even “Oppenheimer,” it did not drag (which “Oppenheimer” sometimes did). The entire project began in 2016, so it was 7 years in the making.
The acting by the three leads (DeNiro, DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone) is outstanding, although there were times when looking at the expression that DiCaprio sports throughout the film reminds the onlooker of looking at a pug bulldog. It’s not a good look. It is meant to show Ernest Burkhart’s venality, weakness and stupidity. Mission accomplished, but leading man reputation as good-looking for Leonardo destroyed. One wonders why Mollie would find him attractive.
It is casting against type for Leonardo DiCaprio, who has usually been quick-witted and attractive in his leading man roles. In this one he is spineless, thick, obsessed with gaining wealth without hard work, and conflicted by his genuine affection for his Osage bride. His wife-to-be refers to him as a coyote. But the very real fact that—doing his evil Uncle’s bidding—he is going to be responsible for the of murder most of Mollie’s family members and even bring Lily, herself, to the brink of death is certainly a good reason to be conflicted. There is ample evidence that Ernest will go whatever way the power wants, including his on-again/off-again decision about whether or not to testify against his powerful uncle.
In addition to the scenes of tribal rituals, whether weddings or pow wows, I was struck by Rodrigo Prieto’s visual imagery in depicting the figures burning down a neighboring farm as almost Dante-esque. They are shown in the distance, fanning the flames of the farm that Bill Hill had engineered a $30,000 fire insurance policy on just a month prior. The shot looks like figures dancing in Hell. Since Mollie (Lily Gladstone) is confined to her bed by that point in the film, seriously ill from her husband’s poisoning her insulin shots, we see the pulled window shades glowing red inside from the fire outside. There are many such impressive visual images. The Osage braves frolicking in the crude oil gushing forth, geyser-like, from the earth. The field of flowers. An explosion is also impressively rendered.
The costuming is also noteworthy and authentic.
Robbie Robertson did eleven films with Scorsese. He was also a close personal friend of the director. Robertson died of prostate cancer at age 80 on August 9, 2023. He married his second wife, Top Chef Canada judge Janet Zuccarini five months before his death. Robertson’s scores for Scorsese films include “Raging Bull” (1980), “The King of Comedy” (1982), “The Color of Money” (1986), “Casino” (1985), “Gangs of New York” (2002), “Shutter Island” (2010), “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “Silence” (2016), “The Irishman” (2019) and “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023), as well as being a performer and producer on 1978’s “Last Waltz,” the documentary about The Band.
The movie is dedicated to Robertson, who died just months before its release.
INTERESTING INFORMATION (SPOILER ALERT)
In researching the genesis of the movie, I found it interesting that, originally, Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to play the role of FBI agent Tom White that Jesse Plemmons portrayed. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth reworked the story because of the interesting conflict that emerged when Leonardo’s character, who loves his wife, is still complicit in murdering almost all of her family and nearly killing her, something she didn’t truly accept until the scene near the end, when she directly asks him what he put in her insulin and he does not answer truthfully (despite just having said that he has confessed all and that it has been a weight off his shoulders). Lily goes forward, then, and, in fact, marries another, dying at age 50, but she is done with Ernest, who is pardoned late in life. Ernest and Byron (his brother, who was complicit in the murder of his wife, Mollie’s sister Anna) lived together in a trailer park at the ends of their lives. Byron was never convicted of anything, which seems unlikely and unfair.
Mollie divorced Ernest after she realized (or finally accepted) the depth of his betrayals. She did not seem to have done so early in his trial, but in the climactic scene between Ernest and Mollie, we see that she is now ready to accept the horrible truth.
At the unusual creative end, when Scorsese uses the old-style radio show based on the FBI to give us the information on what has happened to the principal characters, Scorsese himself reads us Mollie’s obituary, which another writer described as having really impacted Scorsese in a major way. He couldn’t believe that, after everything Mollie had suffered, her obituary from June 16, 1937, at the age of 50, mentioned nothing of these tumultuous life events.
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)
Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart
Robert De Niro as William King Hale
Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart
Jesse Plemons as Tom White
Tantoo Cardinal as Lizzie Q
Cara Jade Myers as Anna Kyle Brown
JaNae Collins as Rita
Jillian Dion as Minnie
William Belleau as Henry Roan
Louis Cancelmi as Kelsie Morrison
Tatanka Means as John Wren
Michael Abbott Jr. as Agent Frank Smith
Pat Healy as Agent John Burger
Scott Shepherd as Bryan Burkhart
Jason Isbell as Bill Smith
Sturgill Simpson as Henry Grammer
John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward
Brendan Fraser as W.S. Hamilton