Both Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub liked to quote D. W. Griffith as saying, toward the end of his life, “What modern movies lack is the wind in the trees.”
Set a hundred years ago, just as short Westerns like Hoot Gibson’s “Some Shooter,” glimpsed on a poster outside a movie house, were cementing cinema’s century, Martin Scorsese’s years-in-the-making “Killers Of The Flower Moon” takes in the wind in the trees. (As well as the pulse of woman and man.)
In Osage country in Oklahoma, whites are taking the money and the lives of those who have land where vast amounts of oil were discovered. It’s as if the white characters took it for granted they could take the oil, and lives. “What I wanted to capture, ultimately,” Scorsese said in a virtual press event earlier this week, “was the very nature of the virus or the cancer that creates this sense of a kind of easygoing genocide.”
“Killers Of The Flower Moon” moves like it’s in our moment, even before considering how the crimes depicted eddy and echo unto today—incorporating the widescreen fluency of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“Silence,” “Barbie”), to the apt, precise, refined production of Jack Fisk (“Badlands,” “There Will Be Blood”), to the pulse of the quietly insurgent, insistent score by the late Robbie Robertson. It’s the sort of sorrowful, engrossing, enraging epic that only a Martin Scorsese with a tip-of-the-tongue encyclopedic knowledge of film history and interest in musical heritage and national wrongdoing and a quarter-billion dollars in production and distribution investment can bring you. Every dollar and dime is onscreen.
The heart of the octogenarian master’s movies lies, as ever, in the performances, restrained but also simmering with both love and hate, ranging from the intelligence, poise and self-possession played by Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart, to the terrifying and remorseless greed of Robert De Niro’s “King” Hale to the abashed joy that soon mingles with humming avarice in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart. Across nearly four hours, we glimpse a community bound by covetousness and racism, a tapestry of slow, steady hand-to-hand genocide. As one sad figure asks, “What about my melancholy? Just get me some moonshine or give me a gun.”
The story, based on the book of the same name by David Grann, began as one about the FBI coming in to find the perpetrators of the flagrant, abominable murders across the land. But co-writer Eric Roth and Scorsese, who early in his career, had hoped to make a picture about Wounded Knee, found another way into the story. “We started reworking the script and it became really, instead of from the outside in, coming in and finding out ‘who done it,’ in reality, it was who didn’t do it,” Scorsese says. “It’s a story of complicity. It’s a story of sin by omission. Silent complicity in cases, certain cases.”
The Osage culture and the Oklahoma landscape enraptured Scorsese, who first saw the landscape in 2019, before the first stages of the pandemic. “I am a New Yorker,” he says. “I grew up on the Lower East Side of New York. I’m very urban. I got there, all I can tell you is those prairies are quite something and they open your mind and your heart, they are just beautiful and especially driving on these roads, straight roads through prairie. On both sides, wild horses, and bison and cows. Wild horses just out to pasture for the rest of their lives. And it was idyllic. And so at this point, how much of the sky, how much of the prairie? You know, should it be 1:85 or should it be 2:35 [aspect ratio]? We gotta go to 2:35 [widescreen]. You know, we want to see more of this land. And then I began to realize that the land itself could be sinister. In other words, you’re in a place like this and you don’t see people for miles. You can do anything. Particularly a hundred years ago. You’re in a place as beautiful as this is but it can shift to being very sinister. ”
“Killers Of The Flower Moon” takes on musical form from the very start, as do most of Scorsese’s films. There’s an exultant Robbie Robertson guitar lick only a few shots into the movie, smack up against a slow-motion shot (maybe the only one in the film) of figures dancing around a great gush of oil rising from the earth. (This rhymes with a later shot by night of figures, blurring as if seen through improperly annealed glass, hoping to stem a bold red fire across a black hillside.)
“For me, ultimately, a movie is like trying to get to the movie being like a piece of music,” Scorsese says, even beyond his music-focused films. “I’m trying to get to the pacing and rhythm, something that can be played. That’s done very carefully on set, but also even more carefully in the editing. That’s why this picture is more like, somebody pointed out recently, like a bolero, where it starts slower and moves slowly and it circles and it circles and then suddenly gets more intense.” The figures of Robertson’s guitar playing move ever forward. “And more intense and suddenly goes more and more [intense] until it explodes,” Scorsese says. “I couldn’t verbalize the way I am now, but I felt it in the shoot and in the edit. A lot of the music that kept pushing me was what Robbie and I put together, particularly that bass note that he was playing. When Ernest drops by the first time to her house. She looks at him, she turns a little sudden to hear, ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.’ I said I wanted something dangerous and fleshy and sexy but dangerous. And that beat took us all the way through. All the way through! Then I added music he sent, like I picked up music from Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music,’ with this one particular piece called “The Indian War Whoop” by Hoyt Ming & His Pep Steppers. It was very, very important. ‘Bull Doze Blues‘ by Henry Thomas, which later became ‘Going Up the Country,’ by Canned Heat. And of course, Emmett Miller singing “Lovesick Blues,” which later on became the great “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. So all that’s in there, but the drive of the movie is what Robbie put down, and you pull it through that way.”
Plus: the wind. “Killers of the Flower Moon” hears the wind. A storm strikes when Ernest first comes to Mollie’s place. She tells him stop, sit. Listen. Let’s listen until it passes. And they do. It is a small but grand shared moment, and Scorsese returns to it in the end, musical in form, musical in sound: rain, wind, coyote. Listen.
“Killers Of The Flower Moon” is in theaters, including IMAX.