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Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio together on screen for the first time in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Killers of the Flower Moon’. Picture: UIP/SA
Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio together on screen for the first time in Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Killers of the Flower Moon’. Picture: UIP/SA

Martin Scorsese’s long awaited adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling true-crime book The Killers of the Flower Moon is finally here. Seven years in the making; costing an estimated $200m; marking the first time that longtime collaborators Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio have appeared together in a Scorsese picture; coming in at just under three-and-a-half hours in length; and starring Native American actress Lily Gladstone — the film comes loaded with worthy credentials and pregnant with great expectations. 

Thankfully it delivers on all of these while also surpassing the expectations of what a late career master of American cinema still has to offer by working within a genre that has a checkered record when it comes to reinforcing stereotypes of Native Americans and whitewashing his country’s foundational sin: its treatment of the people who lived on the land for centuries, long before Columbus “discovered” it.

Set in the 1920s in Oklahoma the film traces the brief, turbulent and murderous period that accompanied the discovery of vast reservoirs of oil on land that had been designated in the previous century as the territory of the Osage. Thanks to some foresight on their part, the Osage had negotiated an agreement with the US government that required anyone looking to drill for oil on the land to pay the Osage owners for leases. This created an unusual situation in which the once oppressed Osage people were now the richest per capita nation in the world — decked in expensive clothes, adorned in priceless jewels, driven around in luxury cars by white chauffeurs and attended to in their homes by white servants.

In the postwar boom years of F Scott Fitzgerald’s hedonistic Jazz Age — no-one seemed to enjoy the newfound freedoms of wealth and prosperity as much as the Osage. But while the outside world may have marvelled with envy and disapproving prejudice at how this nonwhite group had managed to enjoy a lifestyle that was far better than that of most white Americans — white America was busy fixing things behind the scenes to ensure that it would benefit from the Osage windfall.

Many Osage were classified as too incompetent by the government to handle their own finances and forced to rely on officially appointed guardians to have access to their own money while these guardians skimmed millions of it into their own pockets. Shifty, hustling layabout men looking for quick riches married Osage women with a view to inheriting their oil rights. White service providers charged exorbitant “Osage prices,” for everything from grocery and liquor to funeral arrangements.

All of this nefarious history of rapacious capitalism and cold, cruel greed is swiftly dealt with in a bravura opening sequence in which Scorsese uses black and white newsreel style recreations to convey the swift rise in fortunes of the Osage and the accompanying development of a secondary economy of dodgy chancers who descended on Oklahoma like buzzards with dollar-sign-filled eyes.

One of these is the dim-witted, feckless, clench-jawed Ernest Burkhart (Di Caprio) a World War 1 veteran who arrives in town looking for work with his seemingly Osage friendly uncle — cattle rancher and self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills,” William Hale (De Niro).

Grann’s must-read book is a whodunnit — drawing out the revelation of Hale’s puppet master machinations. But here Scorsese and writer Eric Roth waste no time in letting us know that Hale, who speaks the local language, and who is regarded as an old and dear friend of many Osage families and has a long track record of charitable donations and community work, is really a murderous operator. He has his eyes on the ultimate prize of all the Osage oil money he can lay his grubby, Freemason worshipping paws on.

He quickly susses that his nephew, who loves women, money and whiskey will be a useful recruit and when Ernest catches the eye of Osage oil money heiress Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) he seizes the opportunity to push Ernest towards marriage with her for the creation of an alliance that will bear rich black gold revenues in the future. That future is, as Ernest soon realises, arriving sooner than natural causes would have it because his uncle is quietly engaging in the killing off of members of Mollie’s family and other Osage by a variety of nefarious means — including poisoning, murder, “accidents” and “suicides.” Ernest loves Mollie — who even though she knows he is a “coyote” who wants her money, believes him to be a good, loving fool who she can make a life and family with.

By the time the Osage manage to get the authorities in Washington to do something about the “Reign of Terror” plaguing their community, Ernest has become so embroiled in his uncle’s scheme that he’s unable to tell whether he’s still at heart the lazy but good man he believes himself to be, or a ruthless money-hungry murderer who knows that the insulin he’s injecting his sick wife with is probably not the pure miracle gift Hale has assured him it is.

The result of the Osage entreaties to president Calvin Coolidge is the arrival of agents from Edgar J Hoover’s newly formed Bureau of Investigation who under the leadership of a dedicated, morally upright former Texas Ranger named Ted White (Jesse Plemons) finally expose Hale, Ernest and the rest of their collaborators and try to convict them.

By refocusing the narrative away from the mystery of the “Reign of Terror,” and towards the far more tricky and complicated, messy question of the relationship between Ernest and Mollie; foregrounding the experiences through the lens of the despairing tragedy unfurling around a central character who is a Native American woman; and ensuring the participation of the families of the Osage who were murdered so coldbloodedly for financial gain and who have lived for over a century with the trauma — Scorsese produces a work that is one of the finest and most nuanced revisionisms of the Western genre and its myths in American cinematic history.

Di Caprio and De Niro offer career-defining performances; Gladstone announces herself as a major dramatic talent; the late Robbie Robertson’s pitch-perfect blues score and needle drops make quiet but vital emotional links between the oppressed victims of white American self-interest; and the three-and-a-half hours go by urgently and with dramatically satisfyingly big-question raising results.

Scorsese will be 81 next month but with so much intelligent energy, politically savvy interrogation and dramatically engaging control, Killers of the Flower Moon can only make us hope that there’s still plenty of storytelling fuel left in the master’s tank.

• Killers of the Flower Moon is on circuit.

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