"Coyote wants money," Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a young Osage Nation woman, notes sagely when feckless WW1 returnee Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts courting her in early 1920s Oklahoma, the setting for Martin Scorsese’s period epic. He’s a former infantry cook with no cash or discernible talent; she’s a hugely wealthy owner of headrights (the inherited mineral rights to oil-rich Osage County) who understands the motives of the lascivious white men tumbling off the train in town trying to marry so-called "full-bloods".
Ernest may project vulpine avarice ("I just love money!" he admits repeatedly) but Mollie might as well fall for him as any of them; after all, her sisters are all "blanket" wives to unscrupulous layabouts, and the disfranchisement of First Nation people is operating on an industrial and epidemic scale.
A tribal generation is being eradicated and stolen from via widespread conspiracy and murder – a movement spearheaded by local white 'saviour' William 'King' Hale (Robert De Niro), who masks his insidious imperialism with benefactions and a performative love for the Osage, whom he describes as "the most beautiful people in the world".
Torn between faithfulness to her beau and terror at the devastation happening on her own lands, Mollie hopes that authorities outside of the complicit local cops might be able to stop the killing of people and culture. But as one observer notes: "gotta better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian…"
Based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, Scorsese’s western (yes, he’s finally made it) delves deep into manifest destiny, greed, racism, neocolonialism and misogyny in a rich, immersive masterclass that braids together the interests of his past projects. Faith, persecution, racketeering, entitlement, the corrupting influence of money, the disposability of life… all are present in a nailed-on awards magnet that might be some of the best work we’ve ever seen from all involved.
De Niro is sheer understated elegance as the wily, charming Hale, a master-manipulator uncle to dumb pawn Ernest. Peering out of wireframe glasses, he imbues the character with a repulsive righteousness that is mesmerising to watch. Meanwhile, DiCaprio dials down the charisma as an unrepentant, fidgety sad sack. (All downturned mouth, he mirrors De Niro’s distinctive features, conveying a convincing family resemblance.) To see two of Marty’s muses spar in front of fireplaces, across dinner tables and in masonic lodges, evoking memories of 1993’s This Boy’s Life, is a genuine thrill.
They’re part of an ensemble that feels vividly period-authentic and unreconstructed. Gladstone is a firebrand as Mollie, her silences as instructive as the way she pulls her blanket around her shoulders. And Jesse Plemons, a third-act arrival as FBI agent Tom White (in a role originally intended for DiCaprio) manages to evince integrity and kindness in only a handful of scenes. It’s a shame Brendan Fraser (as a pernicious lawyer) didn’t get the memo about subtlety, but his appearance is so fleeting that it’s a minor blip in a three-hour-plus immersion in a captivating and fully realised world.
Weaving the Tulsa race riots, the KKK and the Masons into its tapestry, Scorsese’s opus questions the misdeeds of America in the last century while linking them to the pressing issues of today. Addressing racial violence, nationalism, the continued epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and even our lurid obsession with true crime, Killers of the Flower Moon paints a robust picture of a moment in history that invites viewer introspection. As Ernest asks portentously when reading from a book on Osage history: "Can you see the wolves in this picture?" Well, can you?
Killers of the Flower Moon will be in UK and US cinemas on October 6 (limited) and October 20 (wide), before streaming globally on Apple TV+. For more upcoming movies, check out our breakdown of 2023 movie release dates.