October 2023

Arts & Letters

Histories of violence: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ and ‘El Conde’

By Shane Danielsen

Lily Gladstone (second from left) in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese’s first Western mishandles its story of colonial exploitation, while Pablo Larraín’s darkly humorous, black-and-white satire delivers Pinochet as a vampire

For a boring state, Oklahoma has a pretty bloody history. The Trail of Tears. The Tulsa race massacre of 1921. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, arguably the first manifestation of the far-right discontent that’s currently transforming America. In 1859, oil was discovered near Salina – by accident, in a well that had been drilled for salt – and by 1907, before the then Oklahoma Territory even became a state, it was producing more crude than anywhere else in the United States.

Many of these oil reserves were on Native American land, a geological fluke that made some tribes – the Osage Nation, in particular – extremely rich, once the courts ruled in their direction. The unexpected good fortune of these people, and certain white Americans’ determination to seize that wealth, via insurance scams, quasi-legal chicanery and a series of targeted murders, formed the basis of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller Killers of the Flower Moon, which has now been adapted for the screen by Martin Scorsese for Apple TV. A Western in all but name – the filmmaker’s first – it’s also a curious misfire, an expensive, splendidly mounted drama that feels more airless and inert than anything in his filmography. 

It’s the early 1920s, and to Fairfax, Oklahoma, comes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fawning, feckless little creep with an eye for the main chance. He arrives seeking a job from his uncle, corrupt local identity “King” Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), who unofficially runs the town. Bill puts his nephew to work, but also suggests that Ernest think about marrying one of the local women – specifically, “full blood” Osage Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), whose family owns a vast tract of oil-rich land that Bill desires. Perhaps, Bill suggests, they could then be gotten rid of? So that Ernest (and, by extension, Bill) can inherit it?

Whatever you might think of Late Scorsese – of films such as Silence or The Irishman – they never felt like academic exercises. This one does. For all the granular detail here about life on the southern oil fields, and the customs of the Osage (splendidly visualised by production designer Jack Fisk), and despite the mounting death toll, rendered in Scorsese’s typically brutal high style, the drama never for a moment jolts into actual life. It’s almost remarkable. Women are being murdered, one after another, and indigenous people cheated out of their land – yet you never feel the horror of these killings, or indeed any sense of outrage or even pity. The film just sits there on the screen, looking handsome (it is, to be fair, extremely handsome) and demanding admiration.

Part of the reason is structural. Scorsese and his co-writer, Eric Roth, have shifted the focus away from the book’s primary narrative: the investigation into a string of murders that helped establish the FBI. No longer a whodunnit (we’re privy to Ernest and Bill’s machinations from the very first act), it’s instead an insider’s look at colonial exploitation, from the point of view – emotionally, if not logistically – of the prey, not the predators. And I’m not entirely sure Scorsese is adept at telling that kind of story. The theme is familiar to him – how easily that brash, bootstrapping, all-American ethos cleaves to organised crime – but the perspective is not.

He tries, God knows. And there are definitely flashes of the old master at work, most notably in a sequence showing the bombing of one of Mollie’s sisters’ houses. But the film is long (206 minutes) and, surprisingly, it feels long; the pacing is leaden. The devoted Scorsese fan will imagine that this is just delayed gratification: he’s simply setting the pieces out on the board. The last hour – as in Goodfellas or Casino – will be killer… right? Well, no. The third act is essentially a courtroom scene, one that more or less rehashes the same events, testimonies and conflicts we’ve just spent almost three hours watching.

But a far bigger issue resides in the script itself. Ernest is very much a man on the make, an amoral drifter willing to do anything in order to get ahead. And, in this telling, Mollie recognises this quality at once. She’s attracted to him, but she also knows exactly what he is. Yet she not only marries him – why? – but then comes to depend upon him, even as her beloved sisters are meeting grisly, inexplicable ends and she herself is getting sicker by the day, for reasons no one seems able to identify, and ownership of their oil-rich land is funnelling down to the only two people who could profit from her family’s extinction: the man she wed and his quietly malevolent uncle.

For the drama to work, therefore, Mollie has to not only un-learn something she knew, something that she understood instantly and almost instinctively, but also be a thundering idiot in the face of unfolding events. For almost four hours.

It might have worked – just – had DiCaprio been better. He is not. A sweaty, effortful performance (weirdly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade – all jaw and brow), he somehow manages to communicate no hint of an interior life whatsoever. His Ernest is all surface, all the time: a scoundrel in word, thought and deed. Whenever he tells Mollie he loves her, he’s so obviously, so transparently lying that you think less of her for not seeing it. 

Yet at Cannes, where Killers of the Flower Moon premiered, critics were tripping over themselves to praise DiCaprio’s achievement – which only reinforces my belief that most reviewers lack either the vocabulary or the practical experience with actors to properly assess performance. More acting is not necessarily good acting, an adage handily confirmed when, just over two hours into the film, Jesse Plemons finally turns up as Bureau of Investigations officer Tom White – one of the book’s main characters – and, though late and badly under-utilised, steals the show from his more famous co-star without so much as breaking a sweat. 

Martin Scorsese is now 80 years old. He’s made some of the greatest movies of all time – the run from Taxi Driver in 1976 to Goodfellas in 1990 might be the greatest streak in modern American cinema – and in his capacity as founder of The Film Foundation has rescued many other important works from oblivion. He has nothing to prove, and will likely make other, better movies. In fact, he’s already set his next feature. It’s another David Grann adaptation, as it happens – this time of his 18th-century naval saga The Wager. And sure as eggs is eggs, it will star Leonardo DiCaprio.

For decades, filmmakers have struggled to reconcile art and commerce. It was Scorsese, ironically, who popularised the notion of “one for them and one for me” – meaning, make a studio flick and do more or less as they tell you, in order to earn the money, status and freedom to pursue a more personal project. (Never mind that Scorsese’s jobbing work gave us uber-Marty confections such as The Color of Money and Cape Fear.) 

Everybody says they mean to do this, but only a few have managed to make it work – Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater, notably, and, more recently, David Lowery, who balances big-budget Hollywood jobs (Pete’s DragonPeter Pan & Wendy) with smaller, semi-arthouse projects such as The Green Knight and A Ghost Story. Chile’s Pablo Larraín as well, but with a crucial difference: his personal work is intensely, unmistakeably national, rooted in the textures and traumas of his homeland, while his forays into international production yield English-language “art” films such as Jackie and Spencer, dreamy, impressionistic studies of Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Di. (Another such, with Angelina Jolie playing Maria Callas, has recently been announced.)

These aren’t conventional biopics, by any means; they’re too diffuse, too willing to indulge the eccentricities of style to which Larraín is drawn. But they’re also not terribly good – Spencer, in particular – and certainly a big step down from his Spanish-language work. The fact that his most successful biographical drama, by some distance, is Neruda – in which he memorialises his country’s most famous poet via a creditable impression of Raúl Ruiz, its greatest filmmaker – attests to a simple and incontrovertible fact: that he only really comes alive as a Chilean director.

Tony Manero (2008) is not only a chilling study of individual psychopathy, but a convincing metaphor for what Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror did to his people. Four years later, No took these recent-historical preoccupations and gave them a commercial sheen, mostly thanks to Gael García Bernal’s winning performance as an idealistic advertising executive, running the campaign for the 1988 plebiscite that saw the dictator removed from office. (I also love 2015’s grubby, muted El Club, about four disgraced Catholic priests exiled to a secluded beach town, a film I once described as “George Pell’s Father Ted   ”.)

Pinochet remains very much the burr under Larraín’s saddle, the thing he can’t get past. The reasons are not hard to fathom: his own father, a conservative lawyer and politician, is a former president of the Unión Demócrata Independiente, the far-right party that supported and sustained the coup. But until now he’s addressed the subject obliquely, by describing the effects of the dictatorship upon the psyche of the population; the general himself remained carefully offstage. However, in his latest film, El Conde (now streaming on Netflix), Pinochet is very much front and centre. He’s also a literal monster, a vampire 250 years old and still hungry for human blood.

A black comedy, then – and a broad one. (Larraín’s choice of narrator is especially amusing.) In this telling, the dictator (played by screen veteran Jaime Vadell) did not succumb to a heart attack in 2006, as the record has it, but instead faked his own demise and retreated to a rural compound far to the south, in Punta Arenas. Years later, decrepit and embittered, he’s beginning to long for death – a desire quietly endorsed by his wife, Lucía (Gloria Münchmeyer), who’s carrying on an affair with his loyal manservant, Fyodor (the great Alfredo Castro), and also by his five children, all impatient for their share of the old man’s ill-gotten gains. 

Ever loyal, the Catholic Church dispatches Carmencita (Paula Luchsinger), a nun, to reckon his accounts and apportion his bequests. But she has another plan in mind. In addition to ledgers, her suitcase also contains holy water, a cross and various wooden stakes … though you have to wonder how efficacious these instruments will be, given that the evil on display is not satanic, but all too human. For Pinochet and his cohorts, as Larraín and his co-writer Guillermo Calderón make clear, it was never really about ideology. Fascism was simply a way to disenfranchise and remove the people who stood in the way of their real goal: the appropriation of public wealth. (“They called me a thief !” muses Pinochet sadly at the dinner table. Even his grasping, corrupt kids look slightly embarrassed.) 

To Larraín’s credit, he’s unafraid of taking a big swing at his subjects. Spencer, similarly bold, felt mannered and silly; this one, sustained by its maker’s fury and sadness, is far more satisfying. When Carmencita arrives at the compound, she begins asking – with a pleasant smile, and wide, apparently guileless eyes – the very questions you sense Larraín would dearly like to ask Pinochet. Do you have any regrets? Did you feel anything when you had those people shot? For the general, we learn, it was mostly about the grift. Fyodor, though, is a true believer, and Castro – my favourite working actor – fairly purrs as he describes strangling hundreds of dissidents “with my own hands”.

The middle section sags a bit, and by the end Larraín has slightly lost control of his material: the closing 15 minutes work better as a montage than a climax. Nevertheless, there are real pleasures to be had here. The VFX are terrific – not least, the sight of Pinochet swooping over Santiago by night in his military uniform, like a leathery, gold-braided bat – and the production design extraordinary. (I especially admired the living room of the ranch, with the floorboards ripped up beneath the sofas to reveal the dirt beneath.) And the great American director of photography Ed Lachman delivers the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I’ve seen this decade – many of these fine-grained, fog-shrouded frames bear comparison to Sven Nykvist’s work for Bergman. There’s a moment near the end, as a bitten Carmencita takes flight, that’s dreamlike and rapturous, transcending the limits of satire to become something genuinely, thrillingly Gothic. Though made for Netflix, I was fortunate enough to see it in a cinema – and in an ideal world, you would, too. It’s too bitterly funny to ignore, but too beautiful for the small screen.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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