The most high-profile title at the 76th Cannes Film Festival – Killers of the Flower Moon by Palme d’Or winner Martin Scorsese – had its single press screening today. As the film played in the packed Debussy Theater, I was suddenly struck by something I noticed: it’s the sound of an entire auditorium being held in such rapt attention the air starts to feel thick. It’s the sound that a movie is working. Expertly written, directed, acted and edited, the three-and-a-half-hour crime drama swooshed by with remarkable ease. It’s an at once highly entertaining and thought-provoking look at a piece of native American history. Oscars will likely take notice.
Set during the 1920’s in Osage County, where the natives have become affluent through oil and attracted the envy of white Americans, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) relocates there in search of opportunities like many of his compatriots. His uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) is a local businessman and directs Ernest to “full-blood” Indian girl Mollie (Lily Gladstone), whose family owns a large estate. Not long after the two fall in love and get married, Hale makes his intent to take over Mollie’s family estate known and, all around her, people start to drop like flies. At first neglecting the atrocity altogether, the federal government eventually sends a team of investigators led by Officer White (Jesse Plemons) to track down the killers.
The excellent adapted screenplay by Scorsese and Eric Roth breezily unpacks the multi-layered plot, covering different aspects of a decade-spanning story with great skill. The killings and the belated intervention by law enforcement, the observation on the evolving relationship between whites and Indians at the start of the 20th century, and the tragic love story that ends up costing a woman everything come together beautifully to give the film its epic, novelistic sweep. And something people probably wouldn’t expect from Killers of the Flower Moon is that it’s often quite funny. The cold-blooded murder of native Americans is of course no laughing matter, but the naked greed and outsized ego of Uncle Hale, the bumbling awkwardness of his helpers deserve to be made fun of. Kudos to the writers for successfully incorporating comedy in an otherwise deeply sad tale. It adds an truthful edge to the portrayal of exploiters and enablers, and gives the film a richer, more balanced tone.
Speaking of tones, credit must be given to legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who once again shows her mastery of tonal control. Cutting with absolute precision and a coolness to die for, she keeps things going at a brisk pace and jumps between the film’s lighter and darker notes without missing a beat. Some of these transitions are so smooth they feel downright musical.
Of the principal cast, DiCaprio’s performance is the one most laced with comedy. Ernest is a character who seems driven by the need to do right by everybody. He doesn’t have a strong moral compass and, in his quest to please Uncle Hale, is ready to do all his dirty work. The fact that he isn’t the most proficient criminal or just not the brightest bulb in the box opens up a lot of comedic potential. To me, De Niro and Gladstone delivered the best performances here. It’s a delight to see De Niro in despicable villain mode. His character is so used to having things his way he’s lost all self-awareness. The sight of him continuing to pressure others from his prison cell with psychotic conviction is both ridiculous and chilling. You can tell this is a character so blinded by greed, hate and disregard for human life there’s no turning back for them. Gladstone’s character is the moral/human anchor of the film. From a young woman falling in love with an outsider to a physically and emotionally battered mother plagued by paranoia, she always chooses to hold onto kindness and decency. That warmth of humanity emanates from her eyes and you can’t help but sympathize.
Assembling all these brilliant parts into an organic whole is Scorsese’s direction. Mindful of the historic injustice but not weighted down by tragedy, he made a film that is thrilling, informative, goofy, reflective – it feels alive. Shown out of competition at Cannes, Killers of the Flower Moon is nonetheless a highlight of this year’s selection.