After seeing Fraser’s scene-chewing acting in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” some moviegoers are demanding he give up his Oscar. Counterpoint: Maybe his performance is genius.
Killers of the Flower Moon, as one might expect from a movie about a series of real-life atrocities carried out against the Osage Nation in the 1920s, is not an easy watch. For three-and-a-half hours, Martin Scorsese makes the audience sit with the greed and depravity of the white men who murdered prominent Osage figures for their oil money with near-impunity. The film offers little catharsis, and even less comfort; what it does have is brisk pacing, immaculate craft, and an overflowing cornucopia of brilliant acting.
There are performances from Robert De Niro (as the diabolical William Hale) and Leonardo DiCaprio (as Ernest, Hale’s nephew and sniveling lackey) that rank among the very best of their storied careers. There are standout turns from indigenous actors like Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, and Tatanka Means. There are enough high-impact character-actor performances, from the likes of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Louis Cancelmi, to rival Oppenheimer. Tying it all together is the superlative Lily Gladstone, who will doubtlessly receive Oscar buzz but gives the kind of layered, empathetic performance that makes awards seem trivial.
And then there’s Brendan Fraser.
Fraser, the beloved Canadian actor and newly-minted Oscar winner, plays William Hale’s shady attorney, W.S. Harrison, and spends his seven minutes of screentime chewing the scenery like Prince Albert tobacco. He speaks in a tar-thick Southern accent that by turns recalls Foghorn Leghorn, Benoit Blanc, and that Tumblr post about an antebellum lawyer trying to score acid at Coachella. He makes a habit of suddenly shouting; those with echolalia may find themselves imitating the way he bellows out the words “dumb boy!” like a pissed-off water buffalo. Even when he isn’t talking, he draws focus: His creased mouth and bulging cheeks suggest a man who accidentally swallowed a frog and is trying to play it cool.
Flower Moon, like many of Scorsese’s movies, has a way of juxtaposing the serious with the ridiculous; this is, after all, a movie where Robert De Niro spanks Leonardo DiCaprio bare-ass in a Masonic lodge. But that doesn’t make Fraser’s appearance any less jarring, especially considering the fact that Harrison, far from being mere comic relief, actually has a major impact on the plot by intimidating Ernest into changing his testimony. Reactions to Fraser’s performance on Twitter (or X, as some insist upon calling it) encompassed gleeful comparisons to the Kool-Aid Man, pleas for editor Thelma Schoonmaker to edit him out, and tongue-in-cheek hopes that the Academy would give the Best Actor award Fraser won for The Whale to Colin Farrell for The Banshees of Inisherin.
But defenders sprouted up as well, insisting that Fraser “understood the assignment,” After giving it a bit of thought, I’m inclined to agree with them. After all, this is a Martin Scorsese film we’re talking about; if Marty’s willing to tell his longtime muse DiCaprio to rein it in every now and then, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t do the same with Fraser. For his part, Fraser previously played a barnside-broad good ol’ boy on FX’s Trust, where he deftly hid a steel-trap mind behind cowboy swagger and an East Texan drawl. With that context, the fact that he doesn’t bring that extra dimension to Harrison registers as a deliberate choice, perfectly suited for the point Scorsese is making.
Flower Moon demonstrates, again and again, that America’s institutions were designed to protect white settlers at the expense of the indigenous population. The government passes a law requiring white guardians to control the Osage’s oil money, essentially making it legal to rob them blind. Once the murders start, everyone from the coroners to the doctors to the police force conspire to make sure the bloodshed continues. When Tom White (Jesse Plemons) is sent in with the nascent FBI to investigate, it’s only after the situation becomes enough of an embarrassment for Washington to notice; while some (including Hale) were prosecuted for their roles in the murders, many more deaths were never even investigated.
The justice system, then, is just another iteration of this charade. It’s an arena for pompous men in suits to bloviate and stroke their own egos, secure in the knowledge that their hegemony will never truly be threatened within the confines of the courtroom. When justice is served, it’s incidental and insufficient. Harrison, and Fraser’s performance, is the embodiment of this ideal. He’s a laughable blowhard, but he very nearly gets a criminal mastermind off scot-free; not because he’s a genius, but because he’s working within the legal system, and it’s laughable blowhards all the way down.
With all that said, even if you don’t think Fraser’s performance was thematically appropriate, it’s hard to get too mad about it. It’s fun to watch a great actor go for broke, and it’s even more fun if it doesn’t really work. It’s a pleasure we’re rarely afforded these days. Modern Hollywood is too careful, too image-conscious, for actors to give a truly bonkers performance; if Mommie Dearest were made today, Faye Dunaway would have gone to Joan Crawford Boot Camp for six months with that bearded accent coach from YouTube. Most out-there performances these days, from Fraser in Flower Moon or Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending, are bite-sized supporting performances. Still, that’s alright; it just means we have to savor our sudden shots of madness seven minutes at a time, dumb boy.