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Movie Challenge - "Killers of the Flower Moon"

by R. Anthony Arnold
November 2023

“Was it good? Did you like it?”

If those are the only questions you have about "Killers of the Flower Moon", then read no further. Yes, and yes.

But, is calling a movie “good” really enough? In any given year there are a lot of “good” movies. This year alone we’ve had "Barbie", "Across the Spider-Verse", "Oppenheimer", and "M3GAN", which is hardly the entire list. So no, I don’t think it’s enough to say a movie is good.

Instead, I’ll say that "Killers of the Flower Moon" is a groundbreaking film, a work of art, and an example of the kind of important storytelling Hollywood is still capable of.

Martin Scorcese. Having directed for 60 years, and counting, he’s inarguably one of the few directors who could take a story with so many emotional layers and ensure that the final product doesn’t feel messy.

Is the film long? Yes. Is it overwhelming? Absolutely.

But not in a bad way. Instead of being impossible to access, the complex emotions at play guarantee that it will stick with you. That you’ll continue unfolding it and discovering new wrinkles long after the credits roll.

Scorcese guides you, sometimes gently, at other times violently, from place to place, without being overbearing. You are allowed to ruminate. To wonder. To question. Before you’re taken to another emotional beat. The film's length, which could have been an anchor, becomes a strength, as each scene is given time to breathe. Nothing, and nobody, is given short shrift.

And thank goodness. Because each of the main cast members are doing incredible work.

Robert De Niro’s portrayal of a certain kind of evil is terrifying. Not because he comes across as a brillant schemer. He’s not. The villains are dumb, and at times buffoonish. But because, in spite of this, he believes that he’ll get away with it anyway.

What he knows, and we find out, is that the victims of his crime are so insignificant, so marginalized, that nobody will ever bother trying to save them. His particular brand of evil may be driven by greed, but it’s only made possible by society at large.

So who shares more of the blame? Is it the man who takes advantage of conditions to enrich himself? Or is the society that created those conditions in the first place? A tale of individual evil becomes one of collective responsibility as the film progresses and the scope of the crime begins to present itself.

King, as De Niro’s character prefers to be called, doesn't bluster and shout. He smiles, maybe even helps you, while sliding the knife in. It’s the kind of evil that could, conceivably, lurk nearby without you ever knowing it.

This idea, of the closeness of danger, isn’t one Scorcese invented. Older films like "Basic Instinct" and "Fatal Attraction", and newer ones such as 2020’s "The Invisible Man", have famously played with the concept. But few go as far with that theme as this one.

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio portray a marriage where the love seems so real. So authentic. There’s no unhealthy obsession, or a mad dash through the courtship stage. Instead, we see the warmth and care that Mollie and Ernest have for each other.

Of course, we know it won’t last. Questions and danger surround their relationship from the outset. But as love blooms, culminating in a gorgeous wedding scene, it’s easy to see how different the story could have gone.

Which makes the betrayal sting so much more. Homes, and marriages, should be places of protection and comfort, not places where your enemies conspire against you.

Here again, there are more questions raised. If their love was real, then what explains a betrayal of this scale? If love blinds you to the evil in your partner’s heart, then why should you ever make yourself vulnerable?

Whether either of these performances will be recognized during awards season is a question that will be debated over the next months. Gladstone’s performance is one of facial expressions, which isn’t the kind of acting that typically gets rewarded. And DiCaprio’s character is an inherently submissive man, who spends most of the movie getting pushed around.

But it’s a far richer film because of it. There’s no preaching or inelegant monologues. No points where a character delivers a speech that’s nothing more than the director smuggling in their own views.

Until the very end, when Scorcese himself moves from behind the camera and takes center stage. And it’s that moment, which is somehow surreal, absurd, but also based in fact, when the film leaves so many of its peers in its wake.

What are the responsibilities of an artist when telling a story? How much blame do the storytellers, a group which includes Scorcese, share for their participation in the lies we’ve all learned?

How distorted is our history? And how do we decide who gets to tell it?

Questions like these surround the making of art now. And they’re good questions to ask, but many times you can feel a film or TV show sagging under the weight of trying to make entertainment while also grappling with the answers. That’s what makes "Killers of the Flower Moon" such an achievement.

It manages to not only be entertaining, but it does so while telling a story with purpose. It’s a heavy movie, but it’s never weighed down. It depicts a horrifying incident in American history, while challenging modern audiences in ways that are relevant, right now.

It’s one of my favorite films in a very long time, one I continue to think about a week after seeing it, and I sincerely hope that whenever you get the chance, you take the opportunity to see it.