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Killers of the Flower Moon Review…Killer of the Epic Film?

Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese fails to capture the True nature, purpose, and essence of epic filmmaking.

Killers of the Flower Moon

One upon a time in Hollywood, epic filmmaking was just that…epic. You don’t need to hear it from us. You’ve seen them. You’ve marveled at them. You have likely watched your favorite epic films over and over again. Possibly even once a year in a kind of annual tradition. From Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind, to The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur; Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi to The Godfather Parts One and Two; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey; Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List; Ridley Scott’s Legend, Gladiator, and Kingdom of Heaven; even Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings Trilogies, and countless other sweeping tales brought to life onscreen. Such epic heroic journeys captivate us with riveting stories, arresting dialogue, spectacular visuals, legendary symphonic musical scores, memorable performances, and directorial achievements equal to the monumental scale and scope of the characters, stories, and themes being told. These motion pictures rank among an elite class of high art films. Ones which take our heart-minds on grandiose adventures exploring the struggle against human tragedy, the depths of human villainy, and the heights of triumph of the human spirit even in the face of darkness and despair.

We all know an epic when we see one. They make us forgive and forget their often three-hour-plus runtime. Everything about the epic, from its runtime to cinematography to soundtrack, must achieve the same heights. Even the best historical epics, which attempt to capture the zeitgeist of major turning points and the key players behind them in an authentic, realistic way, embrace what epic history demands of the cinematic telling of the people and events involved…everything must be larger than life. Everything happens for a reason, colossal shifts in human affairs throughout time likewise had their reasons. And the men and women at the forefront of such seismic shifts were likewise giants of history who rose to the challenges of the day and shaped not only the course of human destiny, but the very nature of human experience and understanding for all time.

To be epic, then, whether it be a true story about real historical figures and events or not, a film must be timeless, universal, and transformative in its impact, often on multiple levels. It must speak across space and time, across generations and cultures. A True epic cuts through all superficial identity politics, isolated geographical squabbles, petty economic contests, and the particular idiosyncrasies of particular moments, eras, peoples, or mythologies. In so doing, the True epic film pierces the veil of vulgar corporeality, reveals timeless universal Truths relating to the human condition, and not only touches our very heart and soul but raises us up as one carried upon the wings of Pegasus to the peak of Mount Olympus—no matter who we are or when and where we are watching. There, the epic gives us a superior vantage point to see ourselves and the world, and from that heightened space of conscious Love we have the chance of gaining both catharsis and new insight into the very nature of being.

Sadly, precious little of what we just described applies to Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

A laborious three-and-a-half hour recounting of the fallout from the Osage oil windfall of the early 20th Century, when a band of Osage Native Americans became the wealthiest people on earth, per capita. In much the same way the Saudi Arabians enjoy a similar distinction to this day, for much the same reason… the black gold beneath their lands. However, because the Osage’s land was bordered on all sides by Americans, their Cinderella story didn’t continue into the 21st Century as the Saudi’s did. The tale of the Osage included plenty of exploitation, intrigue, and murder, as the title of the film suggests. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart who, at the behest of his uncle, William Hale, marries a young native woman Mollie, who belongs to a wealthy family of four sisters and a mother. Soon, the women of Mollie’s family begin dying off one by one. And that is the extend to which we are willing to summarize the plot. If you wish to have the ending spoiled for you, you can find documentaries about the film’s True history online.

The film is prologued by an aging, humble, yet grateful Scorsese expressing his thanks to the audience for coming to see his film, how it had been a passion-project for him for a long time, and that they had done their very best to work with the Osage community to tell their story in the best, most respectful way possible. Suggesting to us, at least, that the impetus for making the film—starring Leonardo DiCaprio who is also its Executive Producer—was motivated by the theme of Native American oppression and suffering at the hands of the white man.

And while many stories rooted in that subject matter do well and Truly deserve a film of epic proportions, we are reminded of what Steven Spielberg once said about Schindler’s List. You see, from the moment Spielberg erupted on the Hollywood scene as a blockbuster filmmaker of phenomena storytelling ability, he had been courted relentlessly by the Hollywood establishment to make a film depicting The Holocaust. Spielberg famously said that he simply could not bring himself to make a film about what is arguably one of the darkest chapters of human history, unless he could find some beacon of light and hope amidst the darkness which could be the zenith of the film. Schindler’s Ark, the historical fiction by Thomas Keneally, gave Spielberg the ray of light amid the darkness he needed. In the same way the Amistad gave him a vessel of hope amid slavery he needed to make a film of the same name.

Lamentably, for all his obvious sincerity and attempts to justice to the deeper themes of Native American oppression and suffering at the hands of white racism, greed, and unbridled ambition, Martin Scorsese’s Killers offers no one—not the audience, nor the descendants of the Osage, nor broader humanity, nor posterity—a ray of light and hope amidst the blackened foundations of its oil-saturated, blood-soaked earth-in-microcosm. And the film suffers terribly for it.

And while one could easily argue that Scorsese’s other forays into epic filmmaking—including Goodfellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York—didn’t exactly present such rays of hope, either, they all gave us iconic characters brought to life via legendary performances, unforgettable scenes, and infinitely quotable dialogue, much of which was improvised by veteran actors like Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Scorsese’s trilogy of crime epics were about archetypal falls of hubris bordering on high tragedy—characters whom we loved and/or loved to hate, but critically, felt deeply for as their lives imploded in a downward spiral. It was their epic rise and fall which gave us, the audience, a vehicle of catharsis, and an insight into the folly of unfettered fear, pride, ambition, greed, envy, lust, and anger.

Killers has practically none of that. Robert DeNiro’s turn as William ‘King’ Hale is one-dimensional and flat throughout the film. A man who is eloquently spoken and suspiciously generous, but inwardly possessed by greed and a secret disdain for the Osage peoples he professes to love and care for. And if you think “one dimensional” is too harsh a critique, just rewatch Daniel Day-Lewis’s turn as Bill the Butcher. A self-styled leader of equal self-righteousness, but one whose expressions of affection for and betrayal by DiCaprio’s character are stratospheric next to what we see from DeNiro’s Hale.

His nephew, and protagonist of the film, Ernest Burkhart is dull, dim-witted, and utterly unlikeable as played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We might have been able to handle DiCaprio’s signature singular facial expression for every emotion except happiness for two-and-a-half hours, but three-and-a-half hours of incessant brow-furled mugging and bottom-lip pouting, without an iota of levity or charm was too much. Both he and DeNiro seem to just be trying too hard. Perhaps because they know this is likely their last chance to win an Oscar in a Scorsese picture. Perhaps because they are terrified of disrespecting the Osage by giving a performance deemed half-ass and phoned in. But forced and overcooked is just as inappropriate, especially given the profoundly measured and understanded performances of their co-stars and supporting cast.

Thank heavens for Lily Gladstone’s turn as Mollie Burkhart. Not because her character has many moments of lightness, but because her presence is the sole reason for Ernest’s only moments of tenderness and gentleness. And in the character of Mollie, Gladstone as an actor has more of a range to explore than does DiCaprio in poor Ernest, even given Mollie’s characteristic Osage stoicism, which DeNiro’s Hale actually warns Ernest about in the beginning of the film. Gladstone’s performance, as well as that of her mother (played by Tantoo Cardinal) and the rest of her sisters are deep, textured, and voluptuous in their easygoing and understated simplicity. Cara Jade Myers’s turn as Anna had shades of Sharon Stone’s seminal performance in Casino. In fact, in Mollie and her sisters, we see echoes of that very performance throughout Killers. Say what you will about Scorsese, he knows how to direct women actors in a way which brings out their best (and their characters’ worst).

The rest of the cast are likewise excellent, particularly the supporting cast members, who seem to know the nature and essence of the story they are telling. Their performances are relaxed and reserved, natural and matter-of-fact, as appropriate to the time and place like the muted color palette and simple folksy score. Everyone and everything else in the film by-and-large seem to know that they are in a down-to-earth slice-of-life piece of midwestern Americana history. And all that makes DiCaprio’s constant “angry face” and DeNiro’s “Oscar bait” performances all the more conspicuous. The two headline actors on the bill stick out like a sore thumb and for all the wrong reasons. In their bid to give epic performances, they detract from the True ensemble piece Killers might have been. Everyone else seems to know, intuitively, what Killers needed from its cast, whether they believed they were shooting an epic or not. One need only look at Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia or Russell Crowe’s turn as Maximus in Gladiator to see how powerful unassuming, stoic, and understated performances can be in terms of serving the epic. Sadly, Killers is no epic.

Killers of the Epic Film

Between Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, 2023 has decisively driven two nails into the coffin of epic filmmaking. Whereas Scorsese took a bleak and dour episode of forgotten American history devoid of light and hope and stretched it out unnecessarily in a desperate attempt at framing it as the grand epic the theme of Native American suffering deserves, Nolan did the opposite. Nolan took one of the most important and consequential inventions in the history of the world and reduced it to a near minimalist slice-of-life thriller about a political witch-hunt. Not only was the magnitude of the scientific and technological achievement downplayed, the monumental ethical, existential, and philosophical significance of humanity giving birth to atomic age was barely given lip-service. As for the real human tragedy of Oppenheimer, the human beings disintegrated, incinerated, and irradiated upon the altars of scientific advancement, political ideology, and national pride are but a footnote in Nolan’s non-epic.

Since the early 2000’s the epic has been coughing up blood. Tepid attempts at epic filmmaking in recent years by science fiction films such as Deni Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 and Dune, likewise fell short of the mark of True epic status. Not because they weren’t epic in cinematic scale and scope. And especially in the case of Dune, no one can reasonably argue the epic nature of the source material. But like Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Villeneuve’s pseudo-epics failed the tests we spelled out at the beginning of this article. No one was moved to tears. Nothing of the nature of the human condition was gleaned. No Mount Olympus was summitted thematically, philosophically, or spiritually, which left the heights achieved cinematically little more than an empty shell of tremendous potential and possibility, left wanton on 70mm/IMAX screens of lost opportunity. Much like James Cameron’s much-debated Avatar films, which expanded the scope of technical filmmaking but produced little more than overblown, over-budgeted cinematic spectacle, the current crop of attempted epics are hopelessly devoid of the secret sauce which defines True cinema…a sweeping heroic journey exploring the depths and breadths of universal human experience in a cinematic world whose scale and scope mirrors in macrocosmic the epic journey of the characters in microcosm.

With one remaining candidate this year less than a month away, we will be watching Ridley Scott’s Napoleon starring Joachin Phoenix with anticipation to see if Scott’s recounting of one of history’s most colorful and consequential figures will successfully buck the trend of 2023 or hammer home the third nail in the coffin of the cinematic epic. Either way, stay tuned for the fate of the cinematic epic as we know it.

And for a more in-depth review and discussion of the modern state of the epic film and high art in cinema in general, watch our weekly livestream on YouTube (below). In it we dive into the esoteric causes behind the death of high art and epic cinema specifically, with a specific focus on Scorsese’s newest film, Killer’s of the Flower Moon, and precisely how and why it simply does not measure up to epic status despite its three-and-a-half hour runtime and laborious performances of its two biggest stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.

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