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De Niro, DiCaprio, and Scorsese score in true crime tale

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 22, 2023 5:00 am

De Niro, Leo, and Marty together in one film?

Well, there was that “City of Dreams” promo they shot back in 2015 when Robert De Niro visited Manila to open Nobu. Leo DiCaprio, De Niro, and director Martin Scorsese appeared in the clip, joking that they “want in” on the new casino resort.

Robert De Niro meets G-Man Jesse Plemons.

That was the closest we got to a trifecta, a three-way combo. I asked De Niro at the time if he planned to work with Leo on a real film in the future. He shrugged and said, “Yeah, you know, we talk about stuff. We just gotta find the right thing.”

Finally, eight years later, the real thing arrives.

Scorsese unfurls an ambitious true-crime story based on David Grann’s nonfiction account centering on DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a somewhat dim WWI vet and nephew to De Niro’s avuncular William King Hale, white man and friend (as he tailors himself) to the Osage Nation.

As Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon opens, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma has struck it rich: Oil gushers erupt in the 1920s, suddenly making the Native American tribe “the richest per capita nation in the world.”

This instant wealth attracts every stripe of greedy handler, huckster, and interloper to the Osage Nation, where life expectancy is low, even with fancy mink furs and snazzy Ford Model Ts to drive around in. When the onslaught of diabetes, alcohol, and other white man imports isn’t quick enough to make the Osage people drop dead prematurely, there’s always… murder.

Lily Gladstone sizes up Leo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Scorsese unfurls an ambitious true-crime story based on David Grann’s nonfiction account centering on DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, a somewhat dim WWI vet and nephew to De Niro’s avuncular William King Hale, white man and friend (as he tailors himself) to the Osage Nation.

In reality, Hale’s comforting platitudes barely mask a patronizing appraisal of the biological chances these Native Americans have amidst a harsh and cruel world. We quickly see that harshness and cruelty in a voiceover by Native American Mollie (played by astonishing newcomer Lily Gladstone) who ticks off the many Osage Nation women and men who have turned up dead, face-down in creeks, left shot in alleyways, and other ill fates. Not a single police investigation has bothered to solve the killings.

Lily takes a shine to Ernest, a cabbie who loves “money and whisky.” They soon marry, even as Lily fully understands he’s probably a “coyote” full of kind words. Their pairing is more or less pre-ordained by his uncle, whom everybody in town calls “King.” De Niro does a slippery turn here, not as flashy as his other boss roles, but full of snaky twists. Leo has mastered the art of playing the man who knows too little, beset by competing loyalties. As in The Departed, Gangs of New York, and other Scorsese epics, he’s the bruised, broken conscience, surrounded by tricky or diabolical mentors. (The last time Leo and De Niro appeared together onscreen was 30 years ago in This Boy’s Life, where, come to think of it, they had a similar relationship.) Leo and De Niro play out their shady schemes against a fatalistic turn by Gladstone, who grieves and despairs as her sisters, one by one, are taken away from her. (With Gladstone, it’s all in the eyes: her Mona Lisa expression hides grave wisdom, a well of deeper knowledge in every sly glance.)

One of the scenes in the film "Killer of the Flower Moon".

Scorsese reveals his cards ever slowly, over three and a half sprawling hours. It’s worth it because this is a masterful late effort by the director, full of bravura editing, setups, and imagery. It might be the most damning onscreen account of the white man’s predatory nature in decades. Annihilation is a slow, pummeling drumbeat here: a reference is made by Mollie to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which envious, murderous whites razed a prosperous Black-owned section of the Oklahoma city known as “Black Wall Street” to the ground, killing as many as 300 citizens. (The scene was memorably recreated in the HBO remake of Watchmen.)

Not only do white folks envy and take advantage of the Osage Nation people—described as the “kindest, nicest people on the planet” by the forked-tongue Hale, who meanwhile covets their “head rights” to oil land—they also have no problem swindling each other and getting rid of anybody who stands in the way of those oil rights, such as white interloper Bill Smith (Jason Isbell), who smarmily takes up with Mollie’s next-in-line sister after the first one he married suspiciously dies.

(Incidentally, there’s a lot of in-joke musical casting in Killers of the Flower Moon. Not only does Isbell, from alt-country band Drive-By Truckers, turn up as a dead-eyed grafter; there’s psych-country guru Sturgill Simpson in a small role, as well as alt-rock singer Peter Yorn and Jack White playing a radio announcer. One suspects that Scorsese, whose films have always been driven by some kind of musical spirit, was mourning the recent loss of friend Robbie Robertson, who turns in his final soundtrack here.)

And that’s not even mentioning the arrival of the Bureau of Investigation, led by a disarmingly patient Jesse Plemons (a role originally intended for Leo), and a bellicose courtroom cameo by Brendan Fraser. When Mollie manages to travel to Washington to seek justice for the Osage Nation, a whole other level opens in Killers of the Flower Moon, mirroring the loose-end tidying-up of De Niro’s lethal Jimmy character in GoodFellas. Even Scorsese’s surprise cameo at the end of this long journey, almost breaking the fourth wall to address us directly, harkens back to that earlier crime drama set not in the Wild West, but in New York’s mean streets. It’s a truism found not only in Scorsese’s cinematic world, but in the world at large: thieves gonna thieve, killers gonna kill, no matter the geography.

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Killers of the Flower Moon opens in Philippine cinemas on Oct. 18, released by Paramount Pictures.