Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023): US

Reviewed by Riley McCaffrey. Viewed at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” set in 1920s Oklahoma during the oil boom, delves into the Osage murders, a dark chapter of American history marked by greed and exploitation. This narrative, while exploring a specific series of tragic events, serves as a broader commentary on the sinister undercurrents of American expansion. Martin Scorsese extends his thematic exploration of the American dream’s corruption through this historical lens, diverging from his typical gangster narrative while maintaining thematic parallels such as the critique of authority and the moral complexities arising from wealth and power.

Unlike Scorsese’s other works, this film captivates with its documentary-like realism, drawing viewers into the 1920s Osage Nation with an immersive authenticity that stands as one of the film’s greatest achievements. By revealing the antagonists early, Scorsese shifts focus from suspense to an in-depth exploration of character and setting, enriching the narrative with a profound sense of place and time. The story, primarily seen through the perspective of Ernst, invites audiences to intimately experience the unfolding events, implicating viewers in the historical narrative and compelling them to confront their role as observers of past injustices.

The film’s extensive runtime, detailed period costumes, and set designs allow for a deep engagement with the era, fostering a connection with the characters and the broader historical context. The immersive quality of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is meticulously crafted by Scorsese, leveraging detailed attention to the period and standout performances from actors like Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, and Leonardo DiCaprio to envelop viewers in the story’s emotional and historical landscape.

Surprisingly, Scorsese concludes the film by breaking the fourth wall, a decision that deconstructs the immersive experience to comment on the simplification and marginalization of complex historical narratives for entertainment. This bold narrative choice critiques the audience’s complicity in consuming narratives of suffering, questioning the ethics of storytelling in an industry that commodifies historical trauma. This disruption of immersion serves as a critique of how art and the film industry treat stories of profound injustice, transforming the film into a vehicle for examining the complexities of representing true events on screen and the ethical considerations involved.

In essence, “Killers of the Flower Moon” transcends its narrative to offer a critical reflection on storytelling and the film industry’s role in shaping our understanding of history. Scorsese’s film not only expands his thematic and narrative repertoire but also challenges viewers to reconsider how stories of trauma and injustice are told, consumed, and remembered. Through its immersive storytelling and subsequent critique, the film stands as a compelling exploration of American narratives, inviting audiences to reflect on the darker aspects of history and the enduring relevance of these themes in contemporary society.


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