Saturday, November 4, 2023

Disinherit the earth


Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese (based on the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann)

Spoilers: N/A

Reportedly, Killers of the Flower Moon is a passion project for (apparently) everyone's very favorite elder statesman of cinema, Martin Scorsese, sometimes referred to as a "long-gestating passion project," though I'm not sure that six years and seven monthsand that's dating it from the April 2017 publication of David Grann's popular history, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBIshould be considered all that long a span between "initial inspiration" and "finished high-budget motion picture currently playing in your local movie theater, and, sadly, apparently destined to go afterwards to Apple+, never to be seen nor spoken of again."  Anyway, "passion project" is the marketing pitch.

I don't want to be a giant bitch about it, but I dissent: without even getting into the humongous gulf between the results of this and the last really long-gestating Scorsese passion project, Silence, it's not the greatest evidence of "passion" when a filmmaker restarts his own movie years into development as, more-or-less, an entirely different thing.  In this case, Flower Moon got so radically reoriented just prior to production that its original home, Paramount, didn't recognize it anymore, and balked at Scorsese's requested budget, with Apple paying for it instead.  Meanwhile, Scorsese and the other principals involved have been open about how completely the Birth of the FBI part of Grann's book got subsumed into The Osage Murders part, to the extent that Leonardo DiCaprio, the instigator of this shift in emphasis, switched roles because his original part, the Bureau of Investigation agent, became a tertiary character who could've been played by practically any white man (and Jesse Plemons heeded the call).  Maybe the idea is that this is where the passion came from, Scorsese's suddensome might say belatedrealization that maybe the most appropriate avenue into this crime was not through a fed investigating it at arm's length, but through its Osage victims.  Whether giving editorial control over the screenplay to a committee of Osage Nation officials was therefore a good idea is not really an answerable question, but it didn't even take: all Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Scorsese's co-screenwriter Eric Roth actually managed was a movie that's mostly about the most tedious of the white guys who killed a bunch of them.

Whatever the case, I kept hearing that Scorsese was passionate about this, but the question I had upon its conclusion was: really?  What about anything I just watched demonstrated a passion to put it there?  The unavoidable fact of Flower Moon is its 206 minute runtimethat's three hours and thirty-six minutes, since once the numbers get that high, the math may not come automaticallyand I guess such a runtime looks, at least, like an absence of compromise.  It doesn't feel like passion, though, it feels like scenes just kept being added, out of hope that they might be edifying, and a belief that the only way to honor the gravity of the history was by offering a detailed chronology of events.  It is, occasionally, livened up, but it has all the problems of a book of history without the virtues: with the latter you could go back and check, for instance, who the hell this person you haven't seen in two hours is, and you wouldn't have the same cause to wonder about the motivations and psychology of historical figures that you necessarily wind up with when you watch a work of narrative cinema performed by actors on a giant screen right in front of your face; a book could more readily contextualize certain things, such as the legal framework in which the Osage mineral rights operate; and the story, I expect, would just generally come off more coherently in book form, and the parts that weren't coherent would be reasonably explained by the inherent fuzziness of the past.  Grann's book would also barely take any more time to read.

Well, the movie we have is the movie we have, beginning in 1919 with the return of young Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) from service in the Great War, and go fuck a duck, Scorsese.  I know you have your repertory players whom you intend to have buried alongside you when you die, but no, I'm not having it: Leonardo DiCaprio is very visibly at least 45 here, and it's a constant distraction throughout all 206 minutes of this movie, because everything about this character and this film and history itself insists that he's an immature 20-something heading into an immature 30s, not a man on the other side of middle age.

Anyway (and I won't dive into it, but despite the sullen history lesson of the movie, they appear to have fiddled a little bit with Burkhart's particular chronology: he evidently married prior to going to Europe), Ernest has come back to America, and sought out his uncle Bill Hale (Robert De Niro) in Oklahoma, for any scraps the old man can throw him.  A powerful business leader and the self-styled "King of the Osage," Bill's also a deputy sheriff of Osage County, and he seems like a welcoming bridge between white and indigenous America, with tendrils deep into the native community and capable of conversing in American-accented but evidently-fluent Osage.  And there is, after all, a lot for a man like Bill to like about the Osage, since not long after being forced out of their traditional lands in Kansas into the Indian Territory where they'd been expected to farm largely-unfarmable ground, oil was discovered under the prairie they'd been given, and despite the parasitic regime of "guardians" for "incompetent" tribal members, they'd still wound up the richest per capita community, whites included, in the whole United States.

For this, Bill has concocted a slow-burning scheme to get his hands on this great wealth, and Ernest is the lynchpin, for Bill has been these past few years orchestrating marriages between his own relatives and a family of Osage heiresses.  For Ernest's part, though he is presently employed as a mere cab driver, he's nudged into a flirtation and soon a wedding with Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), and over the course of several years Bill and Ernest systematically eliminate Mollie's relatives until the inheritance of her whole family is concentrated in her, whereupon Bill intends to see Mollie dead, too, so that the whole inheritance comes into his family.  Despite everything, including a novel "medicine" secured by Bill for the treatment of Mollie's worsening diabetes, Ernest somehow doesn't quite realize that killing her is the final stage of the plan.  And Ernest, at least in his conception of things, actually loves his wife.

This sounds like a pretty emotionally overwrought way to tell the story of what contemporary media called the Reign of Terror; this doesn't come through, or comes through in the smallest glimmers of Gladstone's performance such as ever get privileged by Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Roth's lens on these events.  Even before we get to the "206 minutes is too long a time to tell this story this way" problemit eventually becomes a related but different movie, the remaining detritus of the true crime history it started out asFlower Moon isn't even doing its first movie especially well.  What we have is, or ought to be, a very domestic thriller, a Suspicion without the terrible ending, or a Gaslight that ends about the same, and while I am very sure that Scorsese has seen those movies, I guess he hasn't in a while.  Alternatively, he genuinely conceives their protagonists to have been Cary Grant and Charles Boyer (or Anton Walbrook, if you swing that way) and not Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman (or Diana Wynyard).  There is very possibly not another movie in Scorsese's filmography where his disinterest in domesticity and his well-attested, bordering-on-the-absolute inability to handle female characters and perspectives has been more damaging, not even Casino, another lousy Scorsese crime movie that at least offered up a flamboyantly poorly-handled female lead in service of something that, in fairness, wasn't supposed to be Sharon Stone's movie.  But, as hypothetical as it remains, Flower Moon is and was supposed to be, following the project's reorientation as an Osage-centered story, Gladstone's.

It simply isn't, and I don't comprehend how so many people (everything in this review is, maddeningly, an extreme fringe opinion) can manage the cognitive dissonance of forcing it into that shape in their minds.  It's not a matter of a quiet performance speaking volumesshe probably has more screentime than De Niro, but I wouldn't want to positively declare she doesand if she's the best of the "leads" by default, that's no great achievement.  (And De Niro is still offering the best performance in the ensemble: it's not world-shaking, but it's at least good and useful, layering subtle shades of slimy, sinister portent into a glad-handing, back-slapping character who's very plainly malevolent, to us, but whom you could see fooling people for a long time.)  It is shocking, considering its enormity as an object, how many opportunities Flower Moon surrenders to let us get into Mollie's head, which ought to be an apocalyptic battleground between her increasing awareness that some faction in the white population of Osage County is continuing their genocide by other means, and her desperate need to believe that the man she married and the father of her children loves her and would not do her harm.  There's little bits of that.  But, Christ, this is a movie where at a certain point their first child simply pops into existence; I only even know how they made it because I know where babies come from, though I could not tell you whether it's a girl, or a boy, or what its name is, or how exactly Ernest or Mollie relate to it, and the screenplay is curiously more interested in her second pregnancy, unless it's her third.  There isn't a lot to these kids.

And, look, the Burkharts' parenting styles are not really important, but they're part-and-parcel to what is, and without question this material needed someone who could've at least comprehended a romance between Mollie and Ernest, whatever it was that brought them together and kept her bound to him and trusting in him as long as she did.  Flower Moon manages maybe the very first phase of thisas long as it's Mollie warily eyeing the white guy who's pretty openly a golddigger, it somewhat works (it's also maybe the last time, or the last time until the movie's almost over, that Scorsese has much of any use for Gladstone's performance)but it never actually arrives on a second phase, let alone a third, because once the plot point has been established, Scorsese is way more interested in poorly-conceived and poorly-executed hillbilly crime.  It's with a sense of obligation that we return to any Osage concerns, but it's with genuine reluctance that we return to Mollie.  And when we do, it's not enough.  (Consider Ernest hectoring Mollie to take her "insulin," doing the injections himself: these moments are obscenely devoid of tension or fraughtness, just this matter-of-fact couple of scenes that communicate the bare idea, "yes, he certainly is poisoning his wife, possiblysome-fucking-howwithout realizing it.")

Ultimately, a lot of this is a DiCaprio problem: other than not having seen every last single DiCaprio performance, I would be entirely comfortable describing this is as career-worst work (even his misbegotten turn in Don't Look Up was better), and I simply can't explain how he decided this was the right performance for the lead in a 206 minute film that (theoretically) encompasses three or four separate genres.  For absolute starterswell, for absolute starters, he's too old, but I've covered thatbut he has virtually zero chemistry with Gladstone (and Gladstone does not have a lot with him); it's startlingly difficult to imagine these people fucking, even that one time we see them cutely initiate sex.  (The way the moment is cut for the trailer, Gladstone's curious scoffing at DiCaprio's line, "I don't know what you just called me, but it must be Indian for 'handsome devil'!" is reasonably sharp, but only in the trailer; it dies of exposure inside Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker's actual editing for the actual movie; and it's still one of the two or three most personable interactions they ever have.)  This is fatal to the film as it stands, and then there's the rest of DiCaprio's performance, which is even worse, just this permanent upside-down-smile scowl that, in its invariability and frequent lack of applicability to the situation, comes to look more like a legitimate neurological condition even more than an awful acting choice.

Worse, Ernest provides almost no "character" for him to even play: knowing that the development of Flower Moon wound up to no small degree a contest between DiCaprio and Roth, the glib way to imagine it is Roth punishing DiCaprio for their disagreements, but I'd be joking if I said that.  The touchstone, horribly enough, is probably other Roth screenplays where this basic character type appeared, and whether Roth (and/or Scorsese) consciously approached Ernest this way, they could have plausibly asked themselves "what if we took Forrest Gump, and turned him into a vile murderer?", somehow without immediately answering that question with, "wow, what a terrible idea."  And if Flower Moon hadn't dissolved as an emotional experience already by dint of removing its protagonist to the margins of her own story (no, it's not a metaphor, you goofster), it does so completely here, with a villain too blank and stupid to be much of anything, even a sociopath.  He eventually does one "good" thing.  I can figure out the "why" from the story presented, but not from DiCaprio's embodiment of Ernest's contradictions.

This is okay for about two hours, similar to The Irishman before it, in "a logy true crime movie about people who aren't as interesting as they seem like they should be" sort of way.  It would be a dark day to see Scorsese become genuinely incompetent as a director, but man, he's getting close.  While it's charming for a little while to see some old-fashioned moviemaking here in 2023, and the whole almost-vanished "well, if this movie's about a town, we should build a town!" ethos it represents, I dare you to tell me where the $200 million this movie cost actually went.  Mostly, it's just deliberately-staid, chilly observation, with muted photography from Rodrigo Prieto (again, ala The Irishman) and a score courtesy Robbie Robertson, that I think is supposed to be a driving force but rests so frequently on this droningly-repetitive slide guitar riff that it's better-characterized as "hypnotic," as all it succeeded in doing was lowering my metabolism.  It's devoid of much directorial intent besides not getting yelled at.

There are only two things in the whole movie I think rise to the level of interesting direction, and they are the prologue and epilogue.  The prologue is a quasi-pastiche of a silent newsreel, inviting us into Osage County circa 1919 and explaining the unique situation that pertains thereI will mention that despite an entire movie revolving around Osage wealth, Scorsese stops caring about showcasing the incongruous spectacle of profligately-rich Native Americans in the 1920s by the twenty-minute mark.  (The movie we have exists primarily inside tasteful, but not especially lavish, middle-class housing and upon dirt roads.)  The epilogue, anyway, is honestly very goodpart of the reason it's so good, unfortunately, is that it means the fucking movie is finally over, but it's good on the merits, with Scorsese himself, pretty much as himself, grave and serious, taking the screen to intervene in the midst of a kitschy, satirical 1930s true crime radio broadcast.  Both of these devices, bookending the film, are productively anachronistic (or, in the case of the prologue, productively artificial); less productive is the leave Scorsese gave a descendant of a victim of the Reign of Terror, Yancey Red Corn, to write his own speech for the moviewhich, incidentally, feels like it has more words than our two leading actors have spoken in the entire hour up till this pointand Red Corn wrote this speech from a perfectly 21st century perspective, with words and phrases such as "genocide" that didn't actually exist yet, and this is dropped into the middle of a movie that besides bookends otherwise has no goal besides period authenticity.

But it's watchable, at least, and I was not actively against it until it slams into the birth of the FBIthere is a very specific moment, where this boring movie, now well into its third hour, decides to have Plemons's agent interrogate Ernest by intentionally boring him till he cracks, where I (figuratively) threw up my hands at how form was reflecting content.  Flower Moon now gives you a great deal of time to consider how obviously bad an idea it is to structure a movie to conclude with an hour and a half of police procedural devoted to solving crimes we've already spent the previous two hours witnessing.  There are a couple of funny "stupid criminal" jokes in this section, I suppose, and Brendan Fraser shows up as a campy attorney to make me wonder if the movie would be better if everyone (or even anyone) else in this movie were on his weirdo wavelength, but it is such an immense drag.  The first 120 minutes of Flower Moon aren't good, but these last 86 are truly hard.  But go look at social media, and it's nothing but raves.  There've been a few movies over the past decade where I've been suspicious that people must be lying about how much they enjoyed them, but I've never been more convinced of it than with this one.  And this time people aren't even really hyping themselves up on behalf of the representation of marginalized peoples, which at least can be nice (and which this barely accomplishes, anyway).  They're doing it for Martin Scorsese, and on behalf of another late-life, Oscarbaiting, incoherent, overlong project conceived in a vanity that you have elected to call, instead, "passion."

Score: 4/10


  1. I think you must have a very different taste in films from my own, for I too would sing this film’s
    praises could one only carry a tune.

    Having not read the history on which it was based, I went in expecting ‘Reservation Noir’ and got exactly that (Along with a fascinating study of an intriguing place and time; a rock-solid horror movie, built above all on a study of the abuse of trust at all levels, as well as rather too much abuse of person or persons; a crime movie which remembers that successful criminals can still be deadbeat losers; and a police procedural that makes it clear that sound police work is built on patient legwork, not on barnstorming theatrics).

    If nothing else, I feel that Ernest as a character (and Mr DiCaprio’s performance) make a heck of a lot more sense if you remember that he’s not The Villain - he’s a mere henchman and (at least in the film’s version of things) one who has himself been prey to his uncle’s covertly abusive control all his life.

    His arc works perfectly well if you believe that on some level Ernest KNEW he was feeding his wife slow poison, but that he refused to admit to himself that this was the case - Since he liked to think of himself as sincerely attached to his wife (and was certainly terrified of his uncle) admitting to himself that the latter was actively working to kill the former would mean having to choose between them, a choice with potentially fatal consequences to himself (hence his attempts to postpone that choice for as long as possible).

    Honestly, there’s a fair amount of pathos in the tragedy of man who decides to wholeheartedly love his wife and family more than he fears his uncle far too late to keep them.

    I also feel that your review gives too little credit to the flourishes of dark comedy that keep the film from growing too much of a chore to watch (‘Blackie’ was a character I found consistently entertaining and he’s far from the only performance that proves there are no small parts, only small actors).

    Anyway, as you’ll be able to see I rather enjoyed the film and am quite sorry you did not - hopefully you’ll have better luck with your next flick.

    1. I get that re: Ernest Burkhart, but I guess my main thing is that 3 1/2 hours is a long time spent with a guy whose motivations are completely locked in a destructive interference pattern. And as much as humans can behave far less coherently than their fictional counterparts, it feels inhuman to me, like it takes contrived levels of delusion to get to the Ernest we spend those 3 1/2 hours with. Plus I'm just not a big fan of miserablism, admittedly.

      What the movie did make me curious about, and wish it had spent even five minutes on, though I didn't have space to mention it, is Mollie's subsequent life. I just wonder how she navigates the Osage community after being so completely suborned by one of their persecutors, and still raising several of his children. I'm also unclear what her subsequent marriage was like (I don't even know if he was white or Osage; I assume the latter, considering, but his name was Cobb, and the former would be kind of fascinating), and casual looking hasn't satisfied that curiosity.

    2. Fair and cogent points - I suspect that going into the film ‘unspoilered’ would be a serious advantage to a viewer (Also that the Marriage of Mrs Cobb would have to be an entire movie unto itself).