IMG via Melinda Sue Gordon
Martin Scorsese’s latest is a subversive and articulate masterpiece whose thematic culminations will linger with you long after the runtime ends.
The train is perhaps the ultimate visual metaphor of the western genre. From classical western works like those of John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) to more revisionist works like those of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West), the locomotive has long been indicative of civilization reaching the frontier. Traditionally, this is framed as a net-negative for outlaw characters of the story: civilization is arriving to bring order and balance to the wild-west. But in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, the train brings ‘civilization’ and the proponents of it bring only death, destruction, and unfathomable greed.
A post-modern neo-western that utilizes the foundational roots of the genre to build to monolithic new heights, Killers of the Flower Moon recontextualizes the very fabric of these kinds of cinematic stories. Tales of ‘cowboys and indians’ have been around for just about as long as the medium of film itself, but with his latest film, Scorsese dissects not only the intent behind the authoritative voices which have been allowed to tell these stories for so long, but also the effect which these cyclical tales of violence have had on the real-life culture.
It’s a blistering cinematic accomplishment on every conceivable level, with Scorsese tackling themes of American legacy, masculinity, and spirituality across the gargantuan scope of this intimately-scaled story. Killers of the Flower Moon is not just a masterpiece, it’s the exact kind of masterpiece that only Martin Scorsese can deliver.
Top 5 Things About Killers of the Flower Moon
5. Robbie Robertson’s Score
Former leading member of The Band, longtime Scorsese collaborator, and one of the most crucial voices in shaping American rock ‘n’ roll over the course of the last several decades, Robbie Robertson passed away this past August. Prior to his passing, Robertson had completed work on his score for Killers of the Flower Moon, making this his final work. And it’s absolutely miraculous.
Channeling both his own blues roots and melodic variations and leitmotifs which incorporate more traditional Osage-indebted musicality, Robertson delivers a sparse, meticulous, and ruthlessly focused score. It drives the momentum of the film, serving as a propulsive sonic thread that sews it all together through percussive-like, stark instrumentation. In this way, Robertson’s score for Killers of the Flower Moon is both a perfect score for the film, working in awe-inspiring synchrony with the visual work, and a deeply moving epitaph for a phenomenally gifted musical artist.
4. The Lead Trio
Killers of the Flower Moon boasts an incredibly stacked cast, with even peripheral roles filled by highly esteemed performers. For instance, Academy Award-winner Brendan Fraser makes a brief but remarkable appearance, leaving a lasting impression on both the audience and the film.
However, discussing the brilliance of this film would be incomplete without praising the three lead performers: Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. The latter two have been longtime collaborators with Scorsese for decades, but Killers of the Flower Moon marks the first occasion they share the screen in a Scorsese feature, and it’s truly remarkable to witness. Much of the film’s runtime revolves around DiCaprio and De Niro’s characters – their relationship, conversations, and acts of horror – and their performances are nothing short of transcendent. Both actors deliver some of the best performances of their entire careers, playing against type and immersing themselves deeper and deeper into their roles in a startling and often transformative fashion.
As for Gladstone, she is absolutely flawless in her role, providing a reserved and measured performance that serves as the film’s beating heart. Amid all of Jack Fisk’s incredible and expansive production design and the wondrous landscapes captured within Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s frames, some of the most striking visuals in Killers of the Flower Moon come from Lily Gladstone’s silent reactions to new information or admissions. It’s truly remarkable.
3. Thelma Schoonmaker’s Editing
Thelma Schoonmaker is undeniably one of the greatest editors in the history of cinema. For over four decades, she has collaborated with Scorsese on his filmography, taking his earliest work and refining it into some of the most artistically accomplished pieces of his entire career. This is in no small part due to Schoonmaker’s deliriously inventive and innovative approach in the editing room, which mirrors Scorsese’s brilliance behind the camera. Killers of the Flower Moon is a prime illustration of her exceptional skills.
From the way she executes cuts to make violent scenes in the film even more jarring and intrusive through her precise editing, to her deliberate manipulation of sound to amplify every word in an intimate conversation, to her brilliant synchronization of visuals with Robertson’s score in increasingly profound ways, her work here is nothing short of astounding. Schoonmaker, an eight-time Academy Award nominee and three-time winner, is undoubtedly deserving of more accolades for her work on Killers of the Flower Moon.
2. Martin Scorsese
To put it frankly, there are not enough words to express the resilience and brilliance of Martin Scorsese. Now in the seventh decade (!?!) of his career, Scorsese not only continues to produce exceptional work but also relentlessly challenges conformist ideologies and the very constraints of his own artistic creations. The result is a filmmaker who has never rested on his laurels and whose portfolio of groundbreaking work speaks for itself.
There are countless ways to examine and applaud the monumental work he has accomplished with Killers of the Flower Moon, but I’ll keep it concise and say that one of my absolute favorite aspects of Scorsese’s body of work is his exploration of masculinity. Killers of the Flower Moon feels like an unwieldy and entirely overwhelming culmination of that idea, which has been in gestation for decades. The final scene between DiCaprio and Gladstone serves as a pure, simple distillation of everything Scorsese has ever strived for, and it is profoundly affecting.
1. The Final Scene
After what feels like the fastest three-and-a-half-hour runtime this writer has ever experienced, Killers of the Flower Moon concludes with an outro that is entirely unexpected, delightful, and subversively capable of penetrating the core of the film’s entire message.
I won’t provide spoilers, but I can say that the film takes a unique approach to wrapping up the lives of these real-life characters and providing the audience with excess information. It starts delicately and delightfully in so many ways but steadily transforms over the course of the next few minutes before culminating in one of the most open and honest moments of truth in any of Scorsese’s films. It serves as both a quintessential recontextualization of what matters to this particular film and a broader commentary on the ways in which these stories are told. It is a perfect ending, and its impact cannot be overstated.
Martin Scorsese has delivered yet another deeply thoughtful, articulate, and absolutely gorgeously filmic work that delves into the murky depths of America’s past to contemplate the realities of its present. This is a film that simply must be experienced to be believed. Another masterpiece from the maestro.