Martin Scorsese’s newest film is easily one of his best, which is a big statement when talking about the guy who made Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980) and Silence (2016). The trailer promises a masterpiece, and it beyond delivers. Based on the book of the same name, it follows Ernest and his corrupt uncle as they wreak havoc on the Osage community, hoping to get the natives’ oil rights while deceiving and manipulating everyone around them. It’s less a whodunnit than it is a who-didn’t-do-it, laying bare how casually things like murder and betrayal were used to build wealth and further exploit marginalized communities. In many ways, Scorsese was the perfect director for this film, having spent the last 40-plus years exploring how ruthless greed has shaped American history and society, and wondering how that violent history continues to impact us today.
Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth take some pretty big departures from David Grann’s investigative non-fiction book, but I think those changes were necessary. If this
was a faithful page-by-page adaptation, it would not only feel more like a documentary than a film but would also miss the kernel of humanity that’s at its center. By focusing more on Ernest being pulled between a cajoling uncle and a wife he loves, viewers are given a much more emotionally engaging viewing experience. This film is interested in the humanity of the very real history and people that populate Grann’s book, and I think it was necessary to show how things like death and wealth are not only connected, but form the very bedrock of contemporary America. I do think some things are missed; by choosing to focus the script around Ernest, his wife Mollie and Uncle Hale, the systemic nature of the Osage murders is muddied (not lost completely, but also not as present as it was in the book). It feels more like a small conspiracy thought out by Hale than what it really was: an entire town, an entire legal system aiding and abetting systematic murder-for-profit. That being said, the scene where the whole town is trying to convince Ernest not to testify at least nods toward the scope of the problem. I also really loved the ending shot; whereas Grann’s book ended in a way that mourns all the bloodshed, Scorsese’s film ends in a way that celebrates how the Osage people and culture continue to live today, keeping their traditions alive and passing them on to the next generation. It’s a much warmer conclusion, one that focuses on centering the Osage as a people. Like most of the film, it’s a beautifully shot scene.
The fact that Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shot both Barbie (2023) and this movie is incredible. Such a range shows his strong understanding of each film, crafting the visuals to suit what the story needs. Alternating between sweeping wide shots of prairies filled with flowers and intense closeups of sweaty faces whispering secrets, Prieto does a great job of not only centering the people, but showing why the land means so much to them. These stunning images are arranged magnificently by frequent Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, whose editing produces a great pace. There’s been a lot of complaining about the 3h45m runtime of this movie (Scorsese’s longest film), but it really does zip past thanks to Schoonmaker. Under her control, audiences are guided through a tour of America’s brutal history without ever missing anything important or getting confused, and she does it with a keen sense of rhythm. All these fantastic visual elements do a great job of highlighting some of the best acting you’ll see this year.
At the Cannes press conference, De Niro said he didn’t really know why his character did the things he did, but I never got a sense of that disconnect in his performance. In a career spent playing mercilessly ambitious men, this is easily one of his best. Brendan Fraser also makes a brief yet memorable appearance as Hale’s attorney, as does Jesse Plemons as Tom White, the FBI detective who hopes to solve the murders. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest with a fantastic range of emotions, and does a great job capturing the pathetically loyal way he always bends the knee to his uncle; but I think a lot of people will agree that it’s Lily Gladstone who steals the screen as Mollie. She never even gets close to being melodramatic in a role that could’ve easily been so, and her line delivery in some key scenes is just breathtaking. Best Actress material!
In a movie that’s about evil hiding in plain sight, Scorsese does a great job of not letting his characters become cardboard cutouts, refusing to go beyond the scope of the film and make some hollowly grand statement. By keeping us centered around Ernest, Hale and Mollie, he manages to craft a movie that transcends mere docufiction, saying something about the very nature of greed and humanity itself. Every piece of this film is so well executed and purposeful. If you have to watch one movie this weekend, I hope it’s this one! In theaters this Thursday. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more! I'll be posting more thoughts from NYFF this week, so there's never been a better time to join!