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“Killers of the Moon” reviewed

It would be tempting to say that Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s attempt at a western, and in some of its sweeping vistas, particularly early on, you can sense him luxuriating in the open spaces and lawless frenzy of this world. The story would obviously also lend itself to yet another gangster epic from a man who’s made his share of them. But in adapting David Grann’s acclaimed 2017 nonfiction history, whose subtitle is The Osage Murders and the Rise of the FBI, Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth have shifted the scope of the story, pulling the timeline further back to show the growing relationship between Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone), a member of a large and wealthy Osage family, and Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WWI veteran who arrives in town to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a local godfather type. For all its extravagant running time (three hours and 26 minutes!), its big-swing history lessons, and its tale of an Old West giving way to the regimentation of a modern police force, Killers of the Flower Moon turns out to be that simplest and slipperiest of things: the story of a marriage. And a twisted, tragic one at that.

Ernest’s growing relationship with Mollie is at first an extension of his bond with “King” Hale, who takes a great interest in his nephew’s prospects for marriage. (“You like women?” “Sure.” “You like Red?” “Don’t matter to me. I’m greedy.”) Hale and the people around him have taken advantage of the restrictive laws governing Native American wealth. Full-blooded Osage do not actually control their own money; they are declared officially incompetent, and require white guardians to oversee their riches. Quickly, and almost imperceptibly, the impressionable and weak-minded Ernest is coaxed into Hale’s running, murderous plot to accrue even more Osage wealth.

The first half of Grann’s book is structured as something of a mystery. But Scorsese mostly does away with all that, backloading the second half of his film with the investigation by Bureau agent Thomas White (Jesse Plemons), long after we already know the contours of the crime. What was a revelation in the book is here treated in matter-of-fact fashion early on as a casual, quiet, gathering conspiracy. It’s fueled by greed, but also by the notion that the people being killed, robbed, and exploited — the Osage families living in fear of this slow-rolling crime wave (referred to at the time as “the reign of terror”)  — aren’t really people at all. The most uncomfortable aspect of Killers of the Flower Moon is not the spectacular criminality on display, but rather how it’s treated by so many of the characters as no big deal.

These are typically Scorsesean ideas: our offhand capacity for evil, the inherent violence of relationships, the strain of serving two masters. Ernest doesn’t have a spine, or even much of an identity. He’s defined by his malleability — which can become wearying over the course of nearly four hours, especially as the film moves toward a stripped-down, minor-key austerity in its later scenes. DiCaprio is a fine actor, but he needs space to maneuver. He’s at his best when he can go big. Here, his character shrinks the more he’s onscreen, and the actor sometimes feels lost. De Niro, by contrast, has a grand old time as the smooth-talking Hale, imparting his ghastly plans with avuncular chumminess, as if they were bits of folksy wisdom. It’s a return to the quiet menace of some of his classic characters.

In so many ways, though, this is Lily Gladstone’s movie. She plays Mollie with a mix of standoffishness and exhausted hope. She can tell early on that Ernest is out for her money. So is every white man around her. But she comes to see charm and slivers of decency in him, too. As the horrors mount around her, Mollie navigates her queasy, gathering suspicions as well as her affection for her husband. Ernest is … well, he’s earnest. When he tells Mollie he loves her, she believes him. And so do we.