Though the latest from Martin Scorsese adds quite a few jaw-dropping sights and sounds to his iconic filmography, “Killers of the Flower Moon” perfunctorily plods through a myriad of murder and extortion without the richly anecdotal qualities that distinguish “GoodFellas,” “Casino,” and “The Departed.” While it would be unfair to levy similar criticism against 2016’s “Silence” – a very different kind of storytelling endeavor – “Killers” is undoubtedly modeled on the shaggy crime epics for which Scorsese is best known.

In the early 20th century, oil discovered beneath their Oklahoman reservation made the Osage the richest people in the world per capita. It isn’t long before “hungry wolves” arrive and conspire to violently dispossess the tribe of its newfound wealth. One of them is WWI veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), nephew to local benefactor and cattle rancher William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). The false congeniality that’s greased Hale’s ascent to power is on display from the moment we meet him: “No need to call me ‘sir,’” he tells Ernest. “Call me ‘king.’” The self-admittedly lazy and rapacious Burkhart quickly courts and marries Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) for her family’s headrights. Caught between his uncle’s criminal enterprise and Mollie’s crusade to uncover the identities of those responsible for the epidemic of bloodshed plaguing her community, he eventually becomes undone by guilt and regret.

DiCaprio spins a new take on the shrieking buffoon he played in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and De Niro is better than he’s been in recent years, but those attaching “career best” labels to either performance would do well to revisit both actors’ filmographies, not to mention their other collaborations with Scorsese. Gladstone is terrific in the film’s first half but reduced to bedridden delirium in its second as Mollie succumbs to diabetes and the poison Ernest mixes into her insulin.

The actress’ presence becomes sporadic and subordinate to that of her co-stars. Coverage around the movie and Gladstone’s decision to run in Lead rather than Supporting Actress may have dubbed her the story’s “emotional center,” but the truth is that “Killers of the Flower Moon” wastes her talent. It also saddles her character with decisions that may reveal complexity upon repeat viewing but which, at least initially, feel poorly developed.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Movie Review
Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

On the one hand, Mollie is so paranoid that she refuses to have doctors sent by Hale to administer her medicine (she won’t even eat food prepared in her own home). On the other, she accepts help from her murderous brother-in-law (Scott Shepherd) even after the investigation she herself initiated confirms what the character has believed from the moment she’s introduced to us. “Killers” is, of course, based on true events, but there’s a frustrating degree of cognitive dissonance that can’t be explained away by the character’s affection for her husband. For the kind of incisive autopsy of toxic romance that Scorsese delivered in “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” see Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play.” Granted, this is a quieter film, but it also just doesn’t spend enough time with Ernest and Mollie to deliver a psychologically specific relationship drama. The movie isn’t a successful historical account, either.

Eric Roth’s screenplay lacks scope, taking us through one hit and set-up after another without a comprehensive view of Hale’s network. The Tulsa massacre of ‘21 is mentioned in passing, but little attention is paid to anything outside Ernest’s immediate perspective. Also missing, though not for lack of effort, are the flavorful digressions that characterize Scorsese’s best work. Think of the Billy Batts episode in “GoodFellas,” which includes a late-night dinner at Tommy’s mother’s house, or the moment in “The Departed” of two Costello heavies standing outside a bar and “spotting” cops based on who’s ignoring them.

Scorsese’s oeuvre is filled with similarly tangential scenes that enrich the worlds he’s building, even if they don’t move the plot forward. “The Irishman,” with its forced exchanges about ice cream sundaes and optimal methods of vehicularly transporting fish, tried but failed to recapture that spirit of mischief. The same is sadly the case here. There’s only so much amusement Dicaprio’s dumbfounded expressions can provide across 206 minutes. The story assembled from David Grann’s non-fiction best-seller is frustratingly small and at odds with the enormity of the technical prowess on display.

Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and Jack Fisk’s production design are stunning. Scorsese is again working with a gritty, grimy aesthetic instead of the overly sleek, digitally sterile one that made “The Irishman” look as if it had been made for the small screen. Frames are expansive and dense with detail. Costumes by “Dune” Oscar nominee Jacqueline West also merit high praise. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is, at the same time, the year’s best-looking film and one of its biggest disappointments.

★★★½

Read More: 10 Best Films of Martin Scorsese

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Movie Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) Movie Genre: Crime/Drama, Runtime: 3h 26m
Where to watch Killers of the Flower Moon

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