How Martin Scorsese transcends all genres in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

A still from ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’

A still from ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’

It takes years to colonise a people. As I read from the chapter of The British rule in India to my 13-year-old before her history exam, the words are all too familiar. They all came, but didn’t just see; they stayed, befriended, studied, exploited, looted and then conquered. Bloody wars were a small part of a conquest, there were bloodless treasons, murders and looting each time, nation after nation, over and over again. So when I watched Martin Scorsese’sKillers of the Flower Moon, I witnessed history repeating itself in all its glory — in cosy teakwood fireplaces, over luminous dinner tables, in clasped hands and on sheaves of officious paper. Men and women signing away their lands and lives to friendly well-meaning (white) faces.

Classic in its way of telling

With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese’s filmmaking has transcended all his previous genres. This may need a brand new name. Will Gen-Z please come up with a new cool term?

He has discarded all his earlier styles. The film has no frenzied music or moves, in fact many scenes are silent, so silent that the buzz of the fly in the room is so close and loud that you reach over to swat it. Through his interviews while talking about the film, he has repeatedly said he wanted it to be classic in its way of telling; a slow track in, a pan, a crane up, a steady shot but it is almost as if he had no new technology or gadgets on the sets of Killers… As if he has himself gone back in time to tell the story of the Osage.

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And it works beautifully because you are not spoon fed anything. You walk inside Osage county with Ernest fresh off the train from a bloody war (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), you are in town watching life unravel as he watches, you are at the dining table having dinner with Mollie (the luminescent Lily Gladstone) and him, taking a drag of the pipe and falling in love somnambulantly, drowning in his blue intense eyes and her black soft eyes. The story follows the Osage murders that created history in the 1920s post the oil boom in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Just like the ships that arrived on various shores in the world, the white men arrived like vultures when they smelt the oil. They embedded themselves into their society and soon created havoc.

Lily Gladstone in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Lily Gladstone in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
| Photo Credit:
AP

A villain for the ages

Robert De Niro plays William Hale, the King of the Osage, the greatest villain I have seen anyone play in the history of cinema. Villains don’t need to wear sunglasses, chain-smoke and rain bullets on men, nor do they need to sluice the air and deliver flying kicks. They can be dressed in grey well-tailored suits, go to Sunday service and annihilate a whole generation without a drop of blood on their hands. Hale is magnificent in the tiniest of acts; handing Annie the hip flask knowing that’s her undoing, nudging Ernest to pursue Mollie at the beginning of the film while also finding the dirt under his nails, his inherent love for money, and then later — after they are happily married — telling him in passing that Henry (one of the Osage) is Mollie‘s first husband, something that is positioned as a secret his wife has kept from him. Hale expertly delivers his blows.

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As we see the poisoned bodies of the Osage lying in peaceful elegant repose, their corpses dressed and bathed in beautiful light, we know that this poisoning is not just of these men and women, but of all of the Osage — men, women and babies. How one man has methodically worked the trust and minds of many men and women and facilitated these murders. Villainy is so much more than show of might here. He seems like a frail old man, but he is most brutal in his devious plotting and cold blooded decisions.

Scorsese has always revelled in the flawed humans, the sinners, the greedy, the weak, the complex and made them his heroes. DiCaprio as Ernest is no different in this film though I have to say there are really two flawed heroes in Killers of the Flower Moon: Maggie and Ernest. They are both flawed by their weaknesses; him for being a puppet in his uncle Hale’s hands, and her for the inability to question the man she loves more aggressively. It frustrated me at points.

Stunning imagery, and then some

Then there’s all the stunning imagery, that of death — the owl that flies towards the dying mother Lizzie, and then arrives in Mollie’s room, a vision that calls out to her when she falls sick. The shot of the Osage men dancing, silhouetted in spurts of black oil. A telling of history in a single shot. The way Mollie calls Ernest a coyote on their first meeting, but with affection leaden in her voice knowing well that she has invited the enemy into her home wantonly. The conversation between Ernest and Mollie towards the end of the movie where she asks him if he has accepted all his lies, and then — without batting an eyelid — what he was injecting into her along with the insulin. When he acts innocent, she simply walks away. We don’t get to witness cinema like this anymore; we wait to be shocked, moved, stunned and stupefied. Hell, we can’t even shed a tear without reading the subtitles.

I can’t tell who is more brilliant; De Niro, DiCaprio or Lily for their indelible performances, or Scorsese for making this movie and getting all of them to display their finesse in a film that will be a study in cinema for years to come. Only you can be the judge.

The writer is a cinematographer who works in the Indian film industry

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