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'Killers of the Flower Moon' is a monstrous story of greed, masterfully told

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

"Killers Of The Flower Moon" is a true-crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese. It reunites the filmmaker with two of his muses, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, but in an unfamiliar context. In fact, this is Scorsese's first Western. Critic Bob Mondello says it is masterful.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We begin at an Osage Nation funeral for a pipe that represents a way of life. The young people listening outside, laments a tribal elder, will be taught by white people, will learn new ways - and how right he is. Oil gushes up from the grave they've dug. The Osage tribe, banished to Oklahoma land the U.S. government thought worthless, became, for a time, the wealthiest people per capita on Earth, which is when Ernest, fresh from serving in World War I and none too bright, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, encounters them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) Whose land is this?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My land.

MONDELLO: He's being driven by a Native American employee of his uncle's through what looks like a forest of oil derricks. The Osage own them but suffer the racist indignity of having wealth but needing a white cosigner to spend it. The white man who's best figured out how to profit from that indignity is Ernest's uncle, cattleman William Hale, played by Robert De Niro.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

ROBERT DE NIRO: (As William Hale) Well, well, well. Our war hero has arrived.

(As William Hale) You made a good choice coming back here. Osage are the finest, wealthiest, and most beautiful people on God's Earth.

MONDELLO: Also, in Hale's view, the most exploitable - he urges his nephew to court Lily Gladstone's Mollie, the dignified eldest of four sisters whose oil entitlements are particularly vast. And Ernest, who is shiftless but can be charming, does just that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) They told me you was going with Matt Williams for a time.

LILY GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart) You talk too much.

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I don't talk too much. Thinking who I got to beat in this horse race. That's all.

GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart) I didn't realize this was a race.

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I'm a different kind of horse.

GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart, speaking Osage).

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) What was that?

GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart, speaking Osage). That's how you are.

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I don't know what you said, but it must have been Indian for handsome devil.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Marriage seems in the cards and would, notes Hale, give Ernest a claim on Mollie's estate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

DE NIRO: (As William Hale) When we mix these families together and that estate money flows the right direction, it'll come to us.

MONDELLO: That sounds merely calculating. Hale's actual plans are more dire. The Osage community has lately been afflicted by a mysterious wasting disease, and Ernest is an all-too-willing accomplice in the fates of Osage who won't get a chance to waste.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

DE NIRO: (As William Hale) You didn't tell him to leave the gun?

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I don't know why - I told him to leave the gun.

DE NIRO: (As William Hale) If you told him to do it in the front of the head, then why did he do it in the back of the head?

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) He has to make it look like he done it himself.

DE NIRO: (As William Hale) It just looks like murder. It's not supposed to be that way.

MONDELLO: Working from David Grann's nonfiction bestseller, Martin Scorsese has fashioned a monstrous tale of greed abetted by stupidity and enabled by entrenched prejudice. De Niro is a coiled snake, fluent in the Osage language, ostentatiously charitable at funerals, but ever on the lookout for chances to strike. DiCaprio's Ernest is his subservient coyote. Whether facilitating murder...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

DE NIRO: (As William Hale) Money flows freely here now.

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I do love that money, sir.

MONDELLO: ...Or administering the insulin that somehow seems to make Mollie's diabetes worse...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart) I need you here.

DICAPRIO: (As Ernest Burkhart) I am right here.

MONDELLO: ...DiCaprio even starts to look like De Niro - the downturned curve of his mouth, the squint of his eyes. And anchoring the film, giving it weight and an emotional center, is Gladstone's Mollie, grounded, majestic in her calm, even when that calm is really an inertia brought on by illness.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON")

GLADSTONE: (As Mollie Burkhart, speaking Osage).

MONDELLO: Linguistic fidelity is just one of many elements that distinguish "Killers Of The Flower Moon." Along with sweeping vistas, rampant criminality and gaslit marital melodrama, the film is a gangster tale of greed, racism, lies and violence. It is, in short, American history.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.