The autumn of Robert De Niro’s extraordinary career has been a period of prolific emptiness — an assembly-line churn of comedies about dirty and eccentric old men whose titles are as interchangeable as their content. Thank goodness, then, for Martin Scorsese and scant other directors, who still realize that De Niro is a vessel for a certain strand of dark magnetism, a shadowy embodiment of the corroded flipside of the American dream.
This is the De Niro that surfaces around the periphery of Martin Scorsese’s latest masterpiece, Killers of the Flower Moon. His name is second only to Leonardo DiCaprio’s in the credits, but he’s essentially in a supporting role as William Hale, a white cattle baron on an Oklahoma Osage reservation in the early 1920s. Yet his slippery menace is omnipresent.
On the surface, De Niro’s Hale is a paragon of altruism and beneficence. Always available for a kind word or a hand on the shoulder, he’s a civic leader who respects the indigenous land on which he lives, and whose natives respect him.
Underneath the veneer, he’s a genocidal chessmaster planning countless moves ahead. He plays the long game and never gets his hands dirty, residing so above the fray that he’s practically a specter. When one character, hallucinating on morphine administered at his clandestine direction, sees his grandfatherly presence at her bedside, she wonders aloud, “Are you real?” It’s a valid question. His influence is as invisible as it is pervasive, an airborne mind virus, everywhere and nowhere. A quiet despot with a gift of persuasion fit for Madison Avenue, he’s a villain for all time and our time.
DiCaprio, in a performance no less pivotal and revelatory, makes for an ideal patsy in Ernest Burkhart, nephew to Hale, who is welcomed on his uncle’s ranch after serving as a cook in the First World War. We first encounter him arriving in Oklahoma by train, to the optimistic tribal thrum of Robbie Robertson’s final film score. It’s a period of renewal for the rugged and thirsty G.I., whose weaknesses for women and lucre will soon be exploited by his uncle. Hale assigns Ernest with a job driving a cab, and even a mate whom he is entrusted to pursue: Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a diabetic Osage spinster who just happens to be sitting on the headrights to a massive cache of oil money.
And there’s the rub. The Osage, we learn in a silent movie-style title card early in the film, were the “richest people per capita on Earth,” thanks to the geysers discovered on their land. It’s the sort of wealth that an aging tycoon with a failing cattle ranch could use, so wouldn’t it be convenient if his family could marry into the fortune?
Hale’s plans don’t stop at his nephew’s nuptials. Killers of the Flower Moon is based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction best-seller of the same name, about a string of real-life murders of moneyed Osage, and a subsequent investigation by a then-nascent Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI. With DiCaprio’s unwitting pawn at its center, the film is a glorious widescreen tapestry of literary sweep and cinematic grandeur involving a couple dozen players of importance, from hired killers to innocent Osage to characters inhabiting a nebulous gray space between them. At three hours and 26 minutes, it is among the most efficaciously paced very long movies I’ve ever seen. Thelma Schoonmaker’s typically drum-tight editing eschews establishing shots and any sense of narrative plod, generating a sense of perpetual motion and compulsive watchability even for a film that is relatively light on “action.”
While classified as a crime saga or revisionist Western, Killers of the Flower Moon is most fundamentally a psychological thriller whose reverberations echo a century into the future. Like our own troubled zeitgeist, the early 1920s was a period of ascendant white supremacy. The Tulsa race massacre, which occurred contemporaneously to the events of the film, are referenced in a newsreel watched by Hale and his family. We see KKK members marching in a local parade. “King” Hale is unperturbed by the Klan’s presence; a less charitable observer might say he agrees with the organization’s mission — its ends, if not its means.
And like today’s racist demagogues, he possesses a charismatic grip on his followers. You can see it in DiCaprio’s beseeching eyes in each of their interactions; Ernest’s desperation for his uncle’s approval is palpable, and escaping his all-consuming influence is akin to breaking an addiction.
Hale is not so much a classic Scorsese crime don as he is a dapper cult leader, and the modern parallels were surely not lost on its creator. If he doesn’t make another film, Killers of the Flower Moon is a perfect capstone to Scorsese’s career. If there’s any doubt that it ranks among his most personal projects to date, look no further than the movie’s Wes Anderson-style meta denouement, a sequence of boldness and innovation that, like the ending of last year’s The Fabelmans, reminds us that even the all-time greats don’t rest on their laurels.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON. Director: Martin Scorsese; Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Jason Isbell; Rated R; Distributor: Paramount Pictures; Now playing at most area theaters