By Alex McPherson

A disturbing story of greed, prejudice, and the American Dream soaked in venom, director Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” raises awareness of heinous crimes committed against the Osage People, and contains outstanding craftsmanship, but remains limited in perspective. Scorsese’s film is a reminder of the hardships and resilience of the Osage framed largely through the eyes of White evildoers, to emotionally compromised effect.

Based on David Grann’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name, “Killers of the Flower Moon” centers around the “Reign of Terror” that befell members of the Osage Nation in the early 1920s. After being forced to relocate to supposedly desolate land in Oklahoma, members of the Osage Nation discovered that their new surroundings contained oil — rendering them the richest people per capita on Earth, but also targets for manipulation by those eager to strip them of all rights and privileges.

Such is the case of William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy cattle rancher and businessman, who feigns love for the Osage but seeks to take control of their oil-rich lands via any means necessary, including murdering them for oil rights.

Hale’s nephew, the infuriating and slow-witted Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returns from working as a cook in World War I, looking to Hale for a job, unabashedly admitting his love for women and money. Ernest, having injuries that prevent him from doing much manual labor, starts working as a cab driver, where he meets Mollie Kyle (an incredible Lily Gladstone) — a beautiful, sharply intelligent woman quietly enraged at the ways she’s treated by White-dominated authority — and becomes smitten with her. 

DiCaprio and Gladstone as Ernest and Mollie

Hale encourages Ernest to seduce and marry Mollie, who also happens to be an heir to a large fortune in oil royalties held by her mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) — so long as Mollie’s sisters and their husbands aren’t around to inherit it first. Thus sets the stage for brazen brutality, as Hale and Ernest’s schemes grow ever more elaborate, and Ernest becomes a part of Mollie’s family — developing genuine love for her while simultaneously killing her family behind her back: infuriatingly ignorant and/or unwilling to reckon with his own bloodthirstiness and lack of humanity. Eventually, a J. Edgar Hoover-ordered FBI investigation gets underway, led by agent Tom White (Jesse Plemmons), but the grisly damage has already been done.

Indeed, “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells a sobering, insidious story that needs to be told, taking plenty of time to set the scene, emphasize the devilish machinations of its villains, and educate viewers on the hardships and resilience of the Osage Nation. What’s sacrificed by Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth’s screenplay, however, is a more intentional, meaningful focus. 

The film spotlights Ernest’s crisis of conscience (or lack thereof) above diving into the individual tragedies committed against the Osage — illuminating themes that, regardless of relevance, have persisted throughout American history. Scorsese misses an opportunity to explore new, informative points-of-view that have previously been sidelined in mainstream storytelling of this scale.

Stylistically, “Killers of the Flower Moon” excels, but viewers shouldn’t expect anything less from Scorsese. On a big screen, the film is unquestionably immersive, with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capturing expansive plains and claustrophobic interiors, blinding sun and menacing, pitch-black darkness, in beautiful compositions that rarely draw too much attention to themselves.

Longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker lets scenes breathe and marinate — giving the incredible ensemble, including numerous Indigenous actors, room to stretch their wings, with Scorsese taking a noticeably sparse directorial style that eschews flashiness for intimate contemplation: sometimes taking a more spiritual, matter-of-fact approach in depicting Osage customs.

Acts of violence against the Osage are depicted with cold remove — coming seemingly out of nowhere, shocking in their immediacy and grotesque without being gratuitous. The late Robbie Robertson’s score is particularly effective as an omnipresent heartbeat to the monstrous acts unfolding before our eyes.

DiCaprio delivers a characteristically engaging performance as Ernest, with a rough-hewn look, disastrous dentistry, and playful swagger that belies a dark heart of greed and moral bankruptcy.

Viewers going into “Killers of the Flower Moon” with expectations for Ernest to be “redeemed” won’t find that arc here, as his love for Mollie is always offset by the cruelty he exhibits behind her back: a buffoon resistant to the shred of goodness located somewhere deep within his corrupted heart.

As our primary vessel for this story, he’s frustrating, if not outright idiotic, being manipulated by Hale and giving into base instincts that cannot coexist alongside his life with Mollie, try though he might.

DeNiro is frighteningly unhinged as Hale, swerving between Hale’s public and private personas with precision. Hale enlists henchmen to do his dirty work for him, but he remains a powerful presence, and Scorsese’s film gives us plenty of time to observe him pulling strings and explaining his schemes, hiding his conspiracies behind seemingly benign smiles and a culture of complicity.

 Gladstone is, without a doubt, the film’s MVP, conveying warmth, quiet rage, crushing sadness, and persistent hope with minimal dialogue. Through it all, Mollie’s bravery shines through — her resistance to accepting Ernest’s betrayal is heartbreaking to watch.

It’s too bad that “Killers of the Flower Moon” fades her into the background after a certain point, though, as well as giving her siblings and other members of the Osage Nation — featuring powerful performances from Cara Jade Myers, Janae Collins, Jillian Dion, and William Belleau, among others — only a handful of sequences (in the span of a mammoth 206-minute runtime) to divert the spotlight from White evildoers.

That extended runtime exacerbates this issue, especially in the third act, full of legal histrionics and prolonged sequences where viewers watch Ernest and co. squirm under interrogation by the FBI; their incompetence and stupidity on full display, even as the “justice system” fails to live up to its name. 

A last-minute framing device at the conclusion paints the proceedings in a somewhat new light (commenting on the twisted appeal of true-crime stories to begin with and bringing attention to the limitations of Scorsese’s directorial viewpoint, ending with a notable shift back to the Osage in its closing moments), but perhaps “Killers of the Flower Moon” could have been better told by a filmmaker more willing to buck tradition.

It’s admirable that Scorsese takes on the challenge here, and will undoubtedly raise awareness to these real-life happenings, but “Killers of the Flower Moon” is also ham-strung by his own storytelling patterns. It’s an important film brimming with technical mastery and exceptional performances, but one that’s not nearly as enlightening or emotionally gripping as it believes it is.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a 2023 historical western true crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons. Cara Jade Myers, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, Tommy Schultz
Rated: R for violence, some grisly images, and language, the run time is 3 hours, 26 minutes. It opens in theatres Oct. 20 and will stream on Apple TV+ at a later date, to be announced. Alex’s Grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus
A sprawling saga exploring the horrific exploitation of Native Americans and how the entitled white interlopers of Fairfax, Okla., manipulated, stole, extorted, and killed them is a true story that needs to be told.

While I’m not declaring “Killers of the Flower Moon” a modern masterpiece like many of my colleagues, I admire the efforts and care that the filmmakers brought to this explosive, gut-wrenching tale of injustice.

Members of the Osage tribe in the U.S. are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the 1920s, after oil is found on their land, and finally, after too much time — and death — has elapsed, it sparks a major F.B.I. investigation started by J. Edgar Hoover.

Martin Scorsese is such a visceral director, with his keen eye for visuals and distinctive way music organically becomes part of his storytelling, that his sweeping view of the prairie and respect for the indigenous people of the land is breath-taking.

And in his expert way, captures the ugly, insidious greed and power plays that overtake this locale in moody, murky images and unsavory incidents. But the decision to concentrate mostly on the villains, who keep getting away with these awful crimes, is hard to watch for 206 minutes. I know, how he depicts corruption is a Scorsese trademark. (But blasphemy — is he the right person to tell this story?)

A densely layered plot becomes one long slow death march, and yes, it’s disturbing. We get to the point quickly about the amoral criminal behavior underway, but the repetitiveness, slow-burn style, makes one impatient for any sign of justice.

Do we need 3 hours, 26 minutes to tell this story? No. Based on American journalist David Grann’s best-selling 2017 nonfiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” the work would likely be better served as a mini-series.

The Kyle sisters

Many characters get the short shrift. You may be hard-pressed to recall their characters or the way they fit into the puzzle: Tantoo Cardinal, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Tatanka Means, Michael Abbot Jr., Pat Healy, Scott Shepard, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, although you’ll remember Cara Jade Myers as Mollie’s wronged sister Anna, who is brutally murdered, and Tommy Schultz as Blackie Thompson, who figures in to some of the earlier shenanigans.. And then, Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow show up, ever so briefly, as attorneys near the end.

With its $200 million price tag, it is technically brilliant, with exceptional cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (who also did “Barbie” this year!), and stunning production design by Jack Fisk. 

Yet, I can’t ignore the flaws in the storytelling. At times, it’s cold, flat, and airless because it’s hard to root for people. As the Osage daughter Mollie, Lily Gladstone is the heart of the film, but that’s a lot to carry on her shoulders – although she’s definitely the secret weapon. She will be in the awards conversations at year’s end.

Scorsese, and co-writer Eric Roth, concentrated on the improbable romance of opportunistic Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Gladstone’s Mollie Kyle, and what happens in their orbit is indicative of the behaviors of the time.

By 1872, the U.S. government had forced the Osage from their ancestral homeland to Oklahoma, and at the turn of the century, oil was discovered, which brought a fortune to the Osage nation. Because they became some of the wealthiest people in the world overnight, that didn’t sit well with the old-white-guys network, who would systematically destroy and take over any way possible to get their hands on that money from the ‘black gold.’ For some, that involved marrying an Osage, and becoming the heir.

DeNiro as William Hale and DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhardt

Robert De Niro is sensational in a strong sly performance as William Hale, the town’s kingpin — interestingly enough, nicknamed “King.” He controls everything, and pretends to be a great friend to all. Those in his employment do his dirty work, and the despicable deeds start piling up, too many to ignore. Scorsese brings out DeNiro’s best, and since 1973, they have made 10 films together.

Hale is Ernest’s uncle. And Ernest has arrived after serving in World War I, as a cook, who can’t do manual labor but is eager to make money. He starts out as a taxi driver, where he meets Mollie, and hopes sparks will fly. They eventually marry and have three children. DiCaprio, always interesting, goes to the dark side here, disheartening for his loved ones when the truth eventually comes out. It’s DiCaprio’s sixth feature collaboration with Scorsese, since “The Gangs of New York” in 2002.

Enter Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Tom White, who seems like he could be intimidated, but is brave enough to pursue righting wrongs. He comes in later in the second act, which is interesting because the book concentrated on his narrative.

The performances are superb, although Leo’s bulldog grimace wears thin as does his period-appropriate dental work (yikes). Does subtly sinister suit the golden boy? Jury’s out, but thankfully, his portrayal is more conflicted than sympathetic.

But Gladstone is remarkable, her fierce intelligence shining through as the betrayed wife. I was impressed with her work in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 indie movie “Certain Women,” so happy to see attention being paid.

Robbie Robertson’s music score is so organic that at times, you will not notice it. As a member of The Band and a great friend of Scorsese, they have worked together on soundtracks before – “Raging Bull,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money” and “The Irishman,” after their legendary documentary collaboration “The Last Waltz” in 1978.

Now that Robertson has passed (Aug. 9), the film is dedicated to his memory. He was a Native American as well – the son of a Cayuga and Mohawk mother and lived on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada southwest of Toronto during his youth. So that’s a special connection.

For its unusual finale, the film jarringly shifts to a radio show, which gives a razzamatazz wrap-up of all the corruption and dastardly deeds that have transpired.

Overall, the film is a haunting reminder of the atrocities committed against the Osage Nation specifically and indigenous people in general, and for that, it should spark outrage, which is necessary.

Perhaps watching it again when it streams on the small screen (No date as yet, just ‘later on Apple TV+), I will find more nuance and make a stronger emotional connection. It is a story that needs to be told.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a 2023 historical western true crime drama directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons. Cara Jade Myers, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, Tommy Schultz
Rated: R for violence, some grisly images, and language, the run time is 3 hours, 26 minutes. It opens in theatres Oct. 20 and will stream on Apple TV+ at a later date, to be announced. Lynn’s Grade: B-

DeNiro, Jesse Plemons

By Alex McPherson
Director Shaka King’s new film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” is a visceral exploration of resistance, sacrifice, betrayal, and legacy.

The film takes place in late 1960s Chicago, where tensions are high between the Illinois Black Panther party and law enforcement. Amid the aftermath of recent political assassinations, Panther Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is growing increasingly influential. Hampton, only 21 years old, is a passionate leader who seeks to advance the self-determination of black people to rebel against injustice, calling for cultural revolution. He establishes programs providing food, education, and medical care to local communities. He also unites disparate groups across Chicago under shared fury at the powers that be, including an all-white group called the Young Patriots.

Despite all that Hampton does for the community, however, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, monstrously played by Martin Sheen, sees Hampton’s growing impact as a threat and formulates a plot to eliminate him by any means necessary. FBI agent Roy Mitchell, played with surprising nuance by Jesse Plemons, recruits a youthful, petty criminal named William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) to infiltrate the Black Panther Party and become an informant, in exchange for his freedom from jail time. As O’Neal starts ascending through the ranks — eventually becoming Hampton’s security chief — he starts to question what he’s doing and whose side he’s really on.

The following events are often enraging and sobering. Indeed, “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a deeply moving film, depicting its subjects with depth while spotlighting historical events that remain scarily relevant today.

Through focusing on a condensed period of time, King’s film isn’t a mere biopic of Hampton or O’Neal. Rather, viewers are thrown into a warzone twisted by prejudice and misinformation. This was a volatile period in Chicago’s history, as well as a formative time for several of the film’s subjects. As Hampton’s political prowess grows, so do the malevolent machinations operating behind the scenes. Through the film’s crisp cinematography, expressive score, and harrowing scenarios, we can practically taste the danger in the air. The suspense is palpable, both of cultural change and of violence looming on the horizon.

It’s a bold decision to frame the proceedings through O’Neal’s perspective. Though his actions are often reprehensible, “Judas and the Black Messiah” paints him in an empathetic fashion, where we can see his inner turmoil. Trapped in a precarious situation, both the manipulator and the manipulated, O’Neal is an intriguing enigma throughout the film. “Judas and the Black Messiah” contains several nail-biting scenes where O’Neal escapes by the skin of his teeth — slyly grinning to himself when the coast is clear, but also realizing the constant danger he’s in, and his own growing attachment to the Panther cause. 

Stanfield’s performance is downright incredible, capturing O’Neal’s selfishness and slippery nature, but also his discomfort and mental conflict as the film progresses. Although some viewers may take issue with his lack of clear-cut motivation, King and co-writer Will Berson refuse to simplify him for entertainment purposes. O’Neal is a flawed individual, who we may never truly understand. In the film, he comes across as a tragic figure, battling for a sense of self amid delusion, propaganda, and frontline interaction with the Panthers themselves.

This lends the proceedings an uncomfortable tone, as we simultaneously care about O’Neal, but also reel from the actions he takes to undermine the Panthers’ cause. Although I appreciate his complex portrayal, “Judas and the Black Messiah” misses an opportunity to elaborate on his attachment, or lack thereof, to the Panthers. The film rushes through his time spent in the Party early on, and the film’s emotional core could have been strengthened by showing more of his interactions with Hampton in particular. 

Hampton isn’t portrayed quite as three-dimensionally as O’Neal, but the film effectively establishes his skills as an orator and as someone who truly cares about the people he’s serving. Kaluyya gives a powerful, soaring performance, where Hampton’s bravery as a leader is on full display. His girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), helps him mature over the course of the film, as he reckons with the weight of his responsibilities for his personal life and the legacy he leaves behind. 

We also get several quieter scenes of Hampton reflecting on his life, helping to ground his character in relatable, personable emotions beneath his in-your-face persona. He reckons with how he’s perceived by the FBI, along with the consequences his passionate rhetoric has on his followers. While I wish the film had provided more of these intimate moments, “Judas and the Black Messiah” showcases the tragedy of a groundbreaking life of activism cut short by forces emboldened by racism and lust for power.

Despite the film’s missed potential in exploring the relationship between Hampton and O’Neal, “Judas and the Black Messiah” remains a must-watch cinematic experience — spotlighting a heroic figure, while encouraging viewers to fight for a more equitable world for future generations.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is a dramatic biopic directed and co-written by Shaka King, starring LaKeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback, Jesse Plemons, Lil Rel Howery, and Martin Sheen. It runs 2 hours 6 minutes. Alex’s Rating: A- Now playing in theaters and on HBOMax Feb. 12