Minor spoiler alert for the beginning of the film!
Martin Scorsese’s latest film Killers of the Flower Moon has reached UK cinemas and despite the many other autumn releases, it remains hotly talked about.
The film transports us to 1920s Oklahoma, specifically the Osage Nation. The opulence of the nation is immediately clear; we see Osage people being chauffeured and owning acres of land. Through an early slow-motion scene, it is revealed that their land, originally thought to be worthless, was situated above an oil reserve. This oil boom resulted in an influx of wealth for the Osage Nation who soon became the richest people per capita in the world. However, from the offset, Scorsese sets up an underlying tension between those native to the land and the white society that resides alongside them. In an early montage, he creates a dissonance between what we see on the screen and what we hear: graphic depictions of murder are shown on the screen but reported as suicides or unsolved mysteries. For this reason, when our protagonists Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) meet, their amorous back and forth presents a beginning but also foreshadows tragedy. The film is based on the real series of murders in the Osage Nation.
While watching this film, I could not help but feel as though I was witnessing a master at work. Scorsese skilfully blends the quick cuts and dry humour of his early works with a more meditative and evocative tone that is entirely appropriate to the nature of this film. Scorsese is widely considered to be one of the greatest living American directors, and his command of the medium is felt in every scene of this film. The story is unrelenting: he does not hide away from depicting the real tragedy that swept the Osage Nation, nor does he complicate the villains’ culpability. Ernest Burkhart is presented as a complex villain, but his complicity is not questioned. Rather than dramatising the events or creating a spectacle, Scorsese quietly develops the story’s narrative, which evokes an unsettling tension.
It is impossible to talk about this film without mentioning its extensive length. Clocking in at 3 hours and 26 minutes, Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s second-longest feature non-documentary film and has become the stage for a debate on movie runtimes. Within all the discourse, two clear camps have emerged: those who believe the film did not need to be that long and those who proclaim that it ‘flew by’. My experience aligned with the latter: to me, the film’s length did not feel inordinate. This is a story that cannot be rushed but rather needs to unravel slowly to reveal the cause of the Osage murders. In a way, the experience of watching the film mirrors the unyielding nature of the horrors the Osage nation faced. As a viewer, you are not granted any respite or time to breathe but instead must watch the events as they unfolded.
The discourse on film runtimes seems to be part of a larger conversation on the current state of media consumption. Longer runtimes are not a new concept and have never been uncommon in the film community, though recently it has felt like more films that are longer than the standard two hours are reaching mainstream audiences. Christopher Nolan’s box office hit Oppenheimer was three hours long and even the latest instalment of the Hunger Games franchise, Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is over two and a half hours long. Alongside the mainstream rise of these longer films, there have been calls for intermissions to allow people to stretch their legs or use the bathroom. Others argue that this diminishes the artistic integrity of a film; if the directors and editors wanted to add an intermission, they would have. This debate is rooted in personal preference, and so there is no simple answer. However, it is interesting that it’s a Scorsese film that has prompted this discussion. It was just four years ago that the director likened ‘comic-book movies’ to theme parks. It was his attempt to distinguish the CGI superhero movies that feel like products of the corporate studio machine from the films that position a director’s vision at the forefront of the filmmaking process and seem more grounded in human experiences. This runtime conversation also links to the rise of short-form content. Perhaps the film’s length is not the problem; maybe it is our attention spans.
Whatever the answer may be, this discussion about runtime does detract from the film’s narrative and the interesting stories that surround the creation of Killers of the Flower Moon. For instance, the film is an adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book of the same name, but instead of focusing on Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons), a detective who worked to track down the perpetrators of these murders, Scorsese and DiCaprio shift the focus to Ernest and Mollie Burkhart, not only preventing the white saviour narrative but also giving the Osage Nation more of a presence in the film. Like many other viewers, I would have loved to see even more of the Osage perspective. Lily Gladstone has the standout performance of the film, capturing both Mollie’s stillness and strength. Her restraint creates a powerful contrast with the more turbulent performances of Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. I couldn’t help but wish she was at the centre of the film. This links to another discussion that the film has prompted about who has the right to tell someone else’s experience. The film’s ending asks us this question and reminds us that the depredation did not end with Native American land but continued with the depredation of their stories as well.