Saturday, February 17, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Killers of the Flower Moon


Chris's review: Killers of the Flower Moon tells an important story, poorly. I spent the first half of this three-and-a-half-hour-long film confused about what was going on, who was who, who knew what, and where exactly the main point of view was in the timeline. That was a long time to wait before I could start building the scaffolding of plot-interpretation in earnest. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it as a piece of storytelling, and I think it's likely that it will require watching again before I really succeed. There is a whirlwind of disconnected vignettes in my brain when I think back on it. I'm inclined to think of it as so deeply flawed that I can write it off as a failure, but on the other hand, I'm thinking seriously about watching it again, so there's some level of success.

Entirely ignorant of the historical events the movie is based on, the story feels to me like a late frontier-western, and it sort of horrifies me that it was as recent as it was -- 1920s instead of 1880s or something. It definitely feeds my already quite thorough misanthropy. If you have that same tendency and are affected powerfully by stories, you might want to give this one a pass -- especially with all of its many flaws.

Cathy's review:  I really loved this quote from Killers of the Flower Moon: "There might be a public outcry for a while. But then you know what happens? People forget. They don't remember. They don't care. They just don't care. It's just gonna be another everyday, common tragedy." 

You would think that with so much meaning and relevance packed into that one line, I would like the story, and I feel like I should like it. The movie was extremely well-acted, with a standout performance by Lily Gladstone and excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. The cinematography was beautiful, and the subject matter is important because if people don't understand our genocidal past, we cannot possibly prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

But I didn't especially like the movie.  For all its strengths, the story was poorly told. For me to like a movie, it must mesmerize me, make me forget who I am, and let me be a fly-on-the-wall in the world of the film.  I also have to be interested in the subject matter, and I was very interested in this one. I have been thinking about racism and genocide for most of my life (no surprise since I'm the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors) and have casually studied it throughout my adulthood. I also grew up in an area of Missouri that was historically Osage, and I now live adjacent to an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota where the people have also faced (and face) racism and persecution.  So the fact that Scorsese's movie failed to mesmerize me is a little surprising.

A big part of the problem is that the movie doesn't know what it is. Is it a historical epic? A mystery? An art-house film? Western? Crime Drama? Yes. All of the above. It suffers from the "jack-of-trades/master-of-none" issue. A movie can absolutely cross genres and succeed, but this one doesn't.

Killers also utilizes an old-timey epistolary format a little bit, occasionally inserting faux old-timey movie clips, a couple of newspaper articles, and occasional artsy scenes of native culture that are (apparently) disconnected from the story, and the epilogue is filmed as if were a 1920s radio drama, complete with sound effects. However, I can't decide if the technique was under-utilized and should have been taken further, or if it should have been cut as a distraction.  The movie was more than 3 hours long, so ... probably cut.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the movie is bloated. It shows us several oil drilling scenes with workers dripping black goo, but only one of those scenes drives the plot forward.   It also mentions the Tulsa Race Massacre several times, and it was an important contemporary event in Oklahoma, and I think the idea was to create a parallel theme, to show the troubled context of the time and place. But the main story does that very well all by itself; it WAS the fledgling FBI's very first case.  I mean, does a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer need to include a discussion of the Green River Killer to understand the serial killer scene of the 1980s?  

Another darling he didn't kill - flashing the folksy newspaper clippings on screen from "Fox News" announcing the Tulsa Race Massacre. It felt like someone thought they were inserting a clever easter egg, but the obvious anachronism yanked me out of the world of the movie, and I found myself wondering why they didn't just name the Tulsa Tribune, which published the editorial that set off the massacre in the first place. I'm really no fan of Fox but using the movie to take a shot at them (if that's what the movie was even doing -- I'm really not sure) for something that happened 70+ years before Fox was founded seems both cheap and inaccurate, and worse, it allows the real-life bad journalism off the hook for its role in the tragedy.

I also found myself frequently confused about what was going on.  Part of that was structural - the movie tried to gradually reveal who the villains were, to let the audience figure it out along with the Osage experiencing the tragedies firsthand. This creates a sort of bizarre split-personality with conflicting motives in one of the characters.  It also serves to bloat the movie further - one scene is shown TWICE, the first instance keeping the identity of a perpetrator secret, the second revealing it. Mysteries do this sort of thing all the time, but it wasn't well done here.  There were also a number of unexplained red herrings - like what was up with declaring the Osage incompetent and preventing them from accessing their own money? The other had to do with Mollie's insulin, but I won't go into detail on that one to avoid revealing spoilers.

I very much admire Robert De Niro's and Leonardo DiCaprio's talent, and they did wonderful work here.  But I think Scorsese should have moved away from his favorite tried-and-true actors, and gone with other men. De Niro's casting as William King Hale wasn't so bad, I guess ... Hale was in his 40s at the time in real life, not his 80s, but that age difference doesn't really matter to the plot/story-telling though it unintentionally misleads the viewer about how long he lived after the events in question.  On the other hand, casting DiCaprio (who is in his late 40s and 12 years older than costar Lily Gladstone) to play Ernest Burkhart was a serious misstep, both because it calls attention to Leo's creepy tendency to prefer younger women, and because it's inaccurate and unrealistic given the plot of the movie. The real Ernest was in his early 20s, and his wife Mollie was 10 years older than he was.  Ernest's behavior fits with that of an ignorant and inexperienced kid, and the power dynamics between Ernest and Mollie (who is played as worldly and more experienced than her husband) don't quite work given the real ages of the actors.  

I did like the ending - it was satisfying if not happy, and I rather liked the radio-show depiction of the epilogue, but as with Maestro, I resent this movie for its wasted potential. It could have been a great movie about an overlooked part of our history, but it wasn't.

(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 5 out of 10 nominees):

Currently unranked:


  1. I did not see this movie, but I did read the book (listened on CD, actually). I thought it was an excellent book, well written and logically presented. It managed to evoke interest, shock, outrage, and compassion in me. I finished it feeling like I gained knowledge and understanding into a shameful episode of American history, one worthy of being told. Sadly, it's a story being repeated again and again today; just plug in different peoples and people groups.

    That Hollywood couldn't properly tell the story is no surprise. Modern films are often disjointed. Characters and concepts are often poorly introduced (if at all), and there seems to be an assumption on the part of film makers that the audience knows what's going on without being told. Must be the latest film making trend to keep the audience in the dark.

    Good on ya'll for taking the time to give these movies a fair shot, and especially for your thoughtful analyses.

    1. If you end up watching the movie, I hope you'll report back. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the adaptation from book-to-film.


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