Scorsese's bloated epic falls flat
Review by John Larkin
I haven't read David Grann's much praised 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, but after watching the film adaptation I feel like I experienced everything included in the book.
For as long as I have been aware of the novel-to-film adaptation concept, I have always been critical of the film goers who complain that "the book was better". What that really means to me is that the movie-goer prefers the experience of reading a book over watching a film. A film should never, nor could ever, encapsulate the emotional and psychological experience of reading a novel. Watching a film is a completely different emotional and temporal experience that shouldn't have to stand against the weight of hundreds of pages of text. It should also not feel obligated to recreate every moment from the original text. The book should serve purely as the source material for converting it into a new type of medium. Kubrick was the master of this, with the majority of his classic films being based on novels. Kubrick found a way to convert each novel into something new that, although based on prior material, felt wholly original and his own. It's easy to make the argument that, despite Stephen King's disdain for Kubrick's adaptation of THE SHINING (1980), It has become the most enduring, widely beloved horror film ever - topping THE EXORCIST and JAWS on many an all-time best list.
With KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, Scorsese has gone a bit off the deep end, diving into the source material and crafting a film version with a complete disregard for pace, flow and even character depth, seeming more intent on purely capturing each page from the book then delivering a digestible film version of the story. The narrative feels so long and repetitive that it starts to become almost hallucinatory, like being stuck in an endless time loop. That came as a surprise to me as, prior to the film, I had absorbed multiple interviews discussing how long it took Scorsese and DiCaprio to adapt the script into something that would work cinematically. Specifically, a claim to focus strongly on DiCaprio and Lilly Gladstone's uneasy and conflicting romance as the heart of the film. Despite one very sharp scene that's early in the film, their relationship never grows beyond two dimensional and is spread thin amongst a scattering of other subplots and atmospheric escapades.
It's disheartening for stars DiCaprio, De Niro and Gladstone who are nothing but fully committed in their roles - unfortunately under a script that lacks the nuances that should define their character's individual humanity. There's a scene late into the 6th or 7th act that is very much an "actors moment" for DiCaprio, but the revelation that propel's DiCaprio's emotional outburst left me blindsided by it's meaninglessness, despite it clearly being played as a heavy emotional climax for his character.
After 200 minutes that felt every bit it's length, the final scene of the film borders on bad taste complete with an unexpected onscreen cameo that made me giggle instead of hold my head up in reverence.
While there's clearly top tier talent comprising the film, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is a big swing and a miss for Scorsese. For the master of cinema who is constantly making headlines off his critical words on modern day cinema, it ironically would have worked better as a TV miniseries.
I hate to admit that when I left the theater, I thought of Tarantino's much repeated directors creed: Directing is a young mans game and at some point a director start to lose that edge and energy that churns out juicy and indelible cinematic experiences. Tarantino so disdains the idea of being an older director that he's had his retirement pre-determined for years. His next film THE MOVIE CRITIC will supposedly be his last.
I can only hope that Scorsese overcomes his need to conquer the movie runtime records in his next endeavor to adapt one of Grann's non-fiction books - THE WAGER: A TALE OF SHIPWRECK, MUTINY AND MURDER and instead opts for a more audience pleasing experience that doesn't feel like a test of endurance.