Killers Of The Flower Moon - Photo Apple TV+
Killers Of The Flower Moon – Photo Apple TV+

Master storyteller Martin Scorsese’s harrowing epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” relates an American true-crime drama, set in the 1920s.

Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction 2017 best seller, the ambitious, solidly structured screenplay by Eric Roth and Scorsese focuses on the ruthless murders of members of the Osage Nation, whom the U.S. government forced out of Kansas and relocated on 2,300 acres of barren land in what is now Oklahoma. 

Until the 1890s, no one realized that the ‘barren land’ was teeming with oil, making the Indigenous people wildly wealthy. According to records, the tribe took in more than $30 million, the equivalent of more than $400 million today. They had more money per capita than any other populace in the United States.

When Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War One Army veteran, disembarks from a train in the Osage boomtown of Fairfax, he sees oil derricks everywhere, pumping ‘black gold.’ Local men are driving Pierce Arrows and riches abound.

Gullible Ernest – with his admitted weakness for women – has come to live with his conniving, cattle rancher uncle, William ‘King’ Hale (Robert DeNiro), who has ingratiated himself with the Osage and fluently speaks their language. 

Lizzie Kyle (Tantoo Cardinal) is an elderly Osage widow with four daughters: Mollie (Lily Gladstone), Minnie (Jillian Dion), Rita (Janae Collins) and Anna (Cara Jade Myers). Soon, susceptible Ernest woos and weds wary, dignified Mollie (who is diabetic, requiring insulin injections) and he sires her children.

Each Osage woman has ‘headrights,’ meaning a share in the tribe’s Mineral Trust; when she dies, her rights pass to her next of kin – like her grieving white husband.

By 1925, a stealthy, systematic “culture of killing” has developed, attracting the attention of President Calvin Coolidge and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, who dispatches former Texas Ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons) from Washington, D.C. to investigate the ugly, unsavory exploitation and sordid, sinister genocide.

Then, in the early 1930s, Hoover gave a radio show permission to do a dramatic broadcast about how his fledgling crime fighter solved the tragic Osage murders, making Tom White the first G-man to garner nationwide publicity.

When DiCaprio optioned Grann’s book, he was set to play White. But after an early ‘table read’ and a resolution to rewrite the script from a different perspective, he decided to play deluded Ernest Burkhart instead.

Credit Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Jack Fisk, and costumer Jacqueline West for immersing audiences in authentic Osage traditions, vivid pageantry and spiritual tribal customs. The $200 million budget is up there on the screen, culminating with Ilonshka dances and drumming. 

As an inevitable 2024 Oscar contender, look for nominations for Scorsese, DiCaprio, De Niro and transcendent newcomer Lily Gladstone, who is of Blackfeet and Nimiipuu heritage. 

My primary reservation centers on the sprawling film’s three-hour-26-minute length. Granted – Scorsese has a compelling, multi-faceted tale to tell – but there should have been an intermission.

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a nefarious 9, now playing in theaters; it will eventually stream on Apple TV+.

Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See all her reviews at www.susangranger.com.