Movie review: Powerful 'Killers of the Flower Moon' explores banality of evil

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone star in "Killers of the Flower Moon." Photo courtesy of Apple
1 of 5 | Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone star in "Killers of the Flower Moon." Photo courtesy of Apple

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Martin Scorsese has made a lot of movies about people seduced by the glamour of crime ultimately facing their downfall. The powerful Killers of the Flower Moon, in theaters Friday, depicts how utter banality can cause men to commit crimes just as horrible.

When the Osage Nation struck oil on their land in the early 1920s, they enjoyed the luxuries their profits afforded them. William Hale (Robert De Niro) was in charge of the Fairfax, Okla., bank that dispersed funds, with oversight.


Hale's nephew, Ernest Buckhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), comes to work for Hale. As a driver, Ernest falls in love with Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and marries her.

Scorsese lets the viewer live in Osage County and experience what life was like for the newly wealthy Osage people. Besides the casual racism that surrounded them, the Osage were vulnerable to predators.


Hustlers would sell Osage people things they didn't need and overcharge them for services while muggers would rob them at gunpoint. Ernest even joins in an armed robbery.

Many Osage people were dying of causes like seizures or apparent suicides, leaving the profits from their oil rights to their white spouses. The film, based on David Grann's true crime book, shows how Hale got men like Ernest to go along with murders.

Little by little, asking Ernest to do a favor here and there, Ernest slips further and further past the point of no return. Little by little, he also finds ways to justify it to himself.

Once the FBI investigates, Ernest starts convincing himself he was actually helping people. He couldn't have done the bad things we already saw him do earlier in the film, because he sees himself as noble.

It's a perfect dramatization of narcissistic pathology. It becomes as blatant as claiming he paid somebody more money than he actually did. Ernest agrees to any false claims as long as it makes Ernest look like the victim in all this.


Scorsese depicts the conspiracy with the tropes of espionage movies. Hale and Ernest speak in hushed tones in back rooms, peering out of the dark at the innocent victims.

The score hums along, maintaining a steady tone to convey the slow, incremental encroaching of deadly manipulation. Violence can be sudden, and always graphic enough to convey the actual brutality committed.

According to the film, it still took over 100 deaths to arouse enough suspicion for the FBI to investigate. Mollie herself also makes a personal appeal to President Coolidge to sound the alarm, rallying for advocacy despite her health declining due to tainted insulin.

After getting away with it for so long, some of the husbands got so brazen they had to be turned in.

Meanwhile, Scorsese lets the film sink into Mollie's illness and the coverup. Overhead shots linger on Mollie as Gladstone conveys the life leaving her body as she's drugged.

DiCaprio plays Ernest with a grumpy scowl from beginning to end. None of his crimes bring any fulfillment but cost so many innocent lives.

The deadly defrauding of the Osage people isn't as glamorous as the mob rackets of Goodfellas, the Las Vegas hustle of Casino or even the luxurious lifestyles of The Wolf of Wall Street. It's just banal murder for money, but it comes crashing down all the same.


Fortunately, this crime was exposed, because many other banal criminals still get away with it.

Most historical films of this nature end with a text postscript. Scorsese gives Killers of the Flower Moon a much livelier rendition of an epilogue that nevertheless drives home the tragedy.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful movie, not just for the specific historic injustice perpetrated against the Osage people. It is also a universal depiction of the insidious nature of evil.

Killers of the Flower Moon will stream on Apple TV+ after its theatrical run concludes.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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