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Film Reviews: Killers of the Flower Moon & Cabin Music

Arts Review2023-10-13By: Classical Staff


A hot Indigenous film by Scorsese & Poetic Eco-music doc

Reviews by Marc Glassman


Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese, director and co-script w/Eric Roth based on David Grann’s book.

Music: Robbie Robertson


Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (Ernest Burkhart), Robert De Niro (William King Hale), Lily Gladstone (Mollie Burkhart), Jesse Plemons (Tom White), Tantoo Cardinal (Lizzie Q), John Lithgow (Prosecutor Leaward), Brendan Fraser (Hale’s lawyer, W.S. Hamilton), Cara Jade Myers (Anna Brown), Jason Isbell (Bill Smith), Scott Shepherd (Byron Burkhart)

It’s never easy to take on the American Dream especially in this obscene era peopled with Trump supporters wearing their MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats, declaiming their love for what the white settlers did to this continent. Kudos must go to Martin Scorsese for creating a stunning anti-epic focusing on the greed, duplicity and avarice practiced by white men in tragic real-life situations as they conspired to take over the oil-rich land owned by the Osage people of Oklahoma in the 1920s. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful corrective to the historically untrustworthy John Wayne Hollywood Westerns that used to fire the imagination of youths across North America in the post-WW2 era. Here we find the corrupt heart beating at the core of those Westerns, vividly expressed by Leonardo DiCaprio, playing the film’s deceitful romantic lead, who repeatedly says, “I love money.” More than family, romance, the land or religion, DiCaprio’s empty vessel of a man wants cash to buy fancy things and—best of all—avoid work and any sense of responsibility.

DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, a former WW1 Army cook with a weak stomach and no propensity for work, is lucky enough to charm a lovely and wealthy Osage woman, Mollie (Lili Gladstone), who marries him and bears them three children. Most would deem themselves fortunate but not Ernest, whose lust for the good life is propelled by his overwhelmingly powerful uncle, “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), who claims to love the Osage people and even speaks their language but is only motivated by avarice and a bizarre loyalty towards his family. Ernest, who is not the brightest bulb in the building—any edifice will do—is just smart enough to listen to his uncle, which is fine when he’s told to court Mollie, but is awful when King decides that they should seize the oil-producing land owned by her family. 

King’s actions—to kill the rest of Mollie’s Osage family in order to grab the property—became so outrageous that the federal government stepped in to stop it. Before the nascent FBI, led by agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), came to bring the conspirators to justice, over 20 Osage peoples, all of whom were due to profit from the oil being pumped out of their lands, were murdered in suspicious circumstances. Motivating the killers hired by Hale and Burkhart, besides money, was racism: many white people were angry that the barren patches of land given to the Osage by the federal government in compensation for taking Indigenous property elsewhere, turned out to be immeasurably valuable. 

Ernest’s story is complicated to some extent by his love and loyalty to both his wife Mollie and uncle “King.” When told to include something poisonous (never identified in the film or in reality) in his daily injections of insulin to his diabetic wife, Ernest followed orders. Scorsese makes much of this in the film, showing DiCaprio’s inner conflict but ultimate acquiescence to his uncle. There’s no doubt that Mollie would have died had not the federal agent White (and his colleagues) stepped in to bring her to a hospital and back to health.

Much of Killers of the Flower Moon is made up of the murderous conspiracies launched by King Hale and executed, after a fashion, by Ernest and his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd). The film is based on a genuine account set in Osage land in the years after World War One and, like most true crime stories, takes quite a while to unfold: people didn’t immediately decide to kill others back in those days unless they were hardened criminals. Most weren’t, which lengthens the film quite a bit. 

It’s unusual to see an American film that’s over three hours long. Scorsese spends a considerable amount of time at the beginning with the Osage, which helps to make the audience sympathetic to people who have a different language and set of rituals than do “normal” Americans. But too much time is spent with Ernest and others ineffectually carrying out King’s plans. More time could have been spent giving us more of a sense of what Oklahoma was like in the ‘20s; that opportunity is missed except for a few set pieces showing parades and dances to “hot” music of the period. It’s all wonderfully atmospheric but doesn’t add complexity to the story.

Scorsese is famously a fine director of actors. Here we have DiCaprio and De Niro acting up a storm—icons of the great director’s finest work, together at last in a feature film. Their scenes together are stunning, particularly in a prison confrontation near the end of the film, when DiCaprio’s Ernest finally breaks with his powerful uncle King (De Niro). The choices made by each actor are revealing: De Niro plays King as an affable old man, either smiling or offering over-the-top sympathy while DiCaprio offers us a deeply conflicted Ernest, too dim a thinker to figure out what’s in his best interest. If DiCaprio’s work reminds one of classic Method Acting, De Niro’s work is all external, intentionally, to show the narcissistic nature of King’s character. (What would you expect from someone who likes to be called King?)

As great as De Niro and DiCaprio are, they are not the only ones performing at their best. Tantoo Cardinal, a Canadian Indigenous icon, is superb as Mollie’s dying mother Lizzie Q; Jesse Plemons is tough as nails as the matter-of-fact FBI agent Tom White and Cara Jade Myers seizes every scene she’s in as the doomed Anna. But the revelation here is the superb performance of Lily Gladstone as the gracious, brilliant Mollie. Gladstone more than matches DiCaprio as a partner, playing with a coolness that works brilliantly against his intensity. At one point, DiCaprio’s Ernest calls her a “lady” and it’s true that she offers class in a scenario that is too often quite squalid. 

Killers of the Flower Moon recounts an awful tale of racism and greed in 1920s Oklahoma. The roots of what we see now in the U.S. is exposed here in a story that’s 100 years old. Martin Scorsese’s film is hardly perfect: it’s quite long without ever becoming complex in its comments on the sociology and politics of the time. But it’s an intense melodrama made in the director’s signature visual and emotional style. As such, it’s one of the most important films of the year and perhaps the finest one made in the U.S.A. 


Cabin Music

James Carson, director, editor & co-producer and co-cinematographer

Canadian premiere at Planet in Focus international environmental film festival


James Carson is a truly unique individual, one deserving of a documentary, which in what feels like a typical gesture, he’s made virtually by himself. Cabin Music documents Carson, Edmonton-born but a world traveler, who has spent time in places as far flung as Siberia, Kyoto, Barcelona, Auvergne in France, Los Angeles and Moscow. The film shows Carson, a pianist and composer, inspired by the traditions and cultures of the East as well as Europe, creating works that are impressionistic and deeply immersive. His musical style is an amalgam of Debussy, Mompou, Ellington, Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett. The music floats above appropriate images of the diverse locations he’s inhabited, ranging in style from naturalistic landscapes to nearly hallucinatory manipulated images. 

Cabin Music is a showcase for Carson’s considerable skills as a filmmaker as well as that of a stunning musician. He directed and edited the film, shot a considerable amount of it, and was involved in nearly everything else from producing to digital colouring. Nearly plotless, the film is focused in the strawbale cabin, which he constructed (with help from friends) in remote Alberta. It was a coming-home of sorts for Carson: after all of his travels, he returned to his native province and to working on the piano, which he had abandoned for some time when he quit his classical education at the New England Conservatory. The music in the film expresses Carson’s philosophy, which is very open and feels somewhat Buddhist. The only additional music besides his own meditative pianistic excursions are works with the acclaimed Tuva throat singing and instrumental group, Huun-Huur-Tu, whom he must have met in his travels in Mongolia. Throughout, the film feels contemplative and languorous. 

Cabin Music is a beautiful film, truly exploratory and poetic. The music is wonderfully evocative of inner and outer states of being, which approach bliss. It is a one-of-a-kind experience, unusual for Planet in Focus and certainly worthy of being seen and enjoyed.

There are, of course, many other films to be seen and appreciated at the festival. Select highlights include:

The Climate Baby Dilemma, by Victoria Lean, which explores the question facing young concerned people today: should they have children, given the state of the world, particularly the environment?

Britt Wray, one of the young women who participated in Lean’s documentary, is the winner of the festival’s Eco-Hero award. She’s the author of the highly praised book Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an age of Climate Anxiety. She will be present at the screening as well as Lean.

Silvicola by Jean-Philippe Marquis is a unique look at the forestry crisis in BC. Marquis, who has spent a decade there, offers an inclusive take on the subject of cutting down trees: he interviews the workers who do it as well as environmentalists. The result is a remarkably even-handed documentary on a divisive issue, with some practical suggestions offered, from all the interested parties.

How to Blow up a Pipeline by Daniel Goldhaber is a fast-paced thriller based on a non-fiction book, which dealt with environmental activists, who have decided to destroy property being used to make money—and ruin the ecology of the area. In the film, we watch eco-terrorism in action and have to decide whether what we see is worthy of condemnation or praise. A fascinating premise and a very interesting film.

The Planet in Focus international environmental film festival runs until October 23 at the Paradise Theatre, 1006 Bloor Street West. For more information, consult PlanetInFocus.org

Full disclosure: I used to be a programmer for this festival and am still on their advisory board but had no input in choosing this year’s films.



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