Saturday 28 October 2023

Roots: "Killers of the Flower Moon"

One reason Martin Scorsese has been installed as a great American artist is that his work has persistently returned to a most American theme: the circulation and protection of capital. One reason Scorsese has been obliged to operate outside of the studio system in recent years - reverting to the status of independent artisan, albeit one with the might of Netflix and Apple behind him - is that he's retained an eye (and sharpened his eye) for the terrible things done in the name of capital; he's a hard person to enter into business with when you're chiefly concerned with preserving the status quo. Filmmakers need money to show the full worth and allure of money: how it catches the eye, dazzles, seduces, drives men crazy. They also need money to show the full extent of the atrocities committed for money, and to turn ugly spats and petty squabbles into tableaus that illustrate something about the world in its entirety.
Killers of the Flower Moon, a 200-minute riff on David Grann's non-fiction tome funded by Apple to the tune of a reported $200m, opens as the landgrab of the interwar years is just starting to accelerate. Silver-tongued, none-too-bright shagger Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo Di Caprio) hops off a train in a once-unpromising Oklahoman backwater reordered overnight by the discovery of oil on native American land. As Burkhart settles into his new home on the ranch of his cattle-baron uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro), Scorsese eases us into his confrontational project: showing the myriad ways by which white men like Burkhart and Hale drove the Osage tribe down. They robbed them, as per Burkhart's brief career as an out-and-out jewel thief. They screwed them out of a fortune: Burkhart takes up with native Mollie (Lily Gladstone, from Certain Women) for reasons that seem dubious at best. Sometimes, they took the natives out of the picture altogether. Around the two leads, the bodies start dropping like flies, some in mysterious (read: underinvestigated) circumstances, others in broad daylight, like the young mother shot by her husband in an incident deemed to be suicide. When - at Hale's urging - Burkhart starts tampering with Mollie's insulin, the picture is complete and clear: this was an attempt by one group of people to write another out of history - out of existence - for good.

We are, then, a very long way from the romanticism of Dances with Wolves, the last major three-hour study of American tribal relations - and, not coincidentally, the film that beat Scorsese's GoodFellas to the Best Picture Oscar a little over thirty years ago. Scorsese is old enough to remember the brutalities of 1970's revisionist, Vietnam-influenced Western Soldier Blue, and to recall what went awry with 1980's Heaven's Gate, the right film released into the wrong historical moment. Killers is not without lightness, deceptive as it seems in retrospect: its gently hushed first hour, unfolding to the late Robbie Robertson's keening, bluesy score, sketches a prelapsarian vision of American potential, gesturing towards peaceful co-existence in the cornflower fields of a country beginning to arrange itself along recognisably modern lines. Scorsese even floats the intriguing possibility that some part of Burkhart - north of the groin, south of his largely empty head - might sincerely be in love with Mollie: we sense that, because this camera is visibly enamoured of Gladstone's grave beauty. (How could anybody not honestly fall for her?) Yet at a crucial point, a select group of men took control, and got their hands around the nation's neck. What the film describes, over its three-and-a-half hours, is the beginning of a chokehold, and a long, slow death. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth adopt an identifiable and reliably effective tactic, disrupting every other handsome, sundappled period set-up by having something as besmirching as oil erupt in the middle of it. Sometimes it's merely condescension (two white oldtimers discussing the genesis of mixed-race children) or crassness (Hale offering a reward for information on crimes he knows full well about) or pettiness (Burkhart haggling over the price of a coffin); often it's plain racism and/or violence. If the movie creeps rather than dashes through this takeover bid, it's the better to describe and fully inhabit a moment, not so far removed from our own, when this barbarism - ethnic cleansing, before we had the words to describe such horrors - sat side-by-side with genteel domestication. Some part of America was easing slippered feet under the table, even as the hands up top were covered in blood.

For much of this century, I've wondered if we weren't beginning to take Scorsese for granted - whether as a figurehead of film history, a bulwark against the Marvelisation of pop culture, or a semi-baffled walk-on in his daughter's TikTok videos. 2019's The Irishman found him back on home turf, albeit doggedly covering as much of that territory as he could, and perhaps closing the book on the Mob film for now. But Killers is something new entirely: both a refinement of the foundational epic Scorsese attempted twenty years ago with Gangs of New York - a film cut down at the knees by a producer with things to hide - and an expansion of a historical vision to implicate anybody who's ever taken refuge in capitalist ideology. Its technical assurance is as striking as its moral probity: if its narrative shape feels a touch predictable - a straight downward line, not unlike any graph of Oklahoma's native American population over this period - Scorsese and his collaborators have constructed around it a world so rich, busy and detailed one is compelled to see exactly where it leads. (Here is where film and streaming television begin to merge: Killers bears every sign of what Scorsese learnt while working on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.) From the grizzled oldtimers to the late-arriving G-men, everyone looks the part, and the leads - sensing they're working within touching distance of greatness - rise to the occasion absolutely. Di Caprio, in particular, lends Burkhart an almost palpable veneer of greasy privilege, perfect for the kind of doltish mediocrity who could only ever get anywhere in a society organised in his favour; he can be funny with it, as when pursuing a hitman who's vanished on his watch, but he's a terribly compromised human being. Opposite him, De Niro, quietly, unflashily putting his foot down on scenes, reminds us of the gravity only Scorsese now gets from him. The objections raised by Anthony Lane among others - that the movie defaults to the white man's perspective - are not wholly detached from what's on screen, but they strike me as a slight misreading of Scorsese's purpose: beyond a certain point in this narrative, there's hardly anyone else left. Capitalism was the only boogeyman in town, Mollie its final girl, bearing silent witness to the terrors visited on body, kin and land. (Here is late October's most appositely haunting release: a film constructed on actual burial ground.) Scorsese, for his part, has spent the money on the fullest imaginable diagnosis of America's - and likely the world's - present woes, going out into the fields where the bodies were indifferently interred, digging back a century, and exposing the tangled roots of today's racism. A rare contemporary multiplex option to prove at least as bracing as it is absorbing, Killers of the Flower Moon is the work of a born historian who's also seen enough in his own time to know there's no quick fix for what lies deep in the hearts of men and some way down in the ground. Still, Scorsese insists, we owe it to ourselves, and all those who lie there, to keep digging, and never look away from what it is we find.

Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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