Killers of the Flower Moon
Martin Scorsese's latest explores the Osage Indian murders, bolstered by incredible lead performances.
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Over the last couple months, I’ve been trying to patch up my blindspots in director Martin Scorsese’s filmography. In doing so, I’ve been reminded of his multifaceted nature as a storyteller. It’s common to think of Scorsese as “the mob flick guy,” but anyone who’s taken a tour through his career, or even ventured beyond his most famous films, could tell you the range of interests and and forms of expression he has. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore bears little resemblance to the gangster films he has become known for.
Among film historians and analysts, Scorsese’s career is frequently broken down into two broad categories, each representing the director’s two primary modes as a filmmaker: Scorsese the spiritual (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence), and Scorsese the examiner of masculine violence and hubris (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, and so on).
Of course, Scorsese himself is not so binary—certain films don’t fit cleanly into these categories, and those that do often show shades of the other—but it’s a simple and fairly accurate way to broadly describe his output over almost six decades.
None of his previous films have attempted to blend these two modes more equally than Killers of the Flower Moon. With his latest, Scorsese makes it his mission to explore the calculated cruelty of White America toward the land’s indigenous people—specifically, through the lens of the Osage Indian murders of the 1910s-1930s. It’s a (semi-)organized crime drama drenched in social commentary and wrapped in Osage spirituality. And it’s a pretty thrilling encapsulation of Scorsese’s various strengths, plus some new tricks.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the States after serving in World War I to live with and work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Fairfax belongs to Osage County—“Indian land.” Ernest’s uncle tells him of both the intellect and the wealth of the Osage people—the former of which gave them the foresight to take control of the oil in their land, and the latter a perpetual benefit of it.
In his first scene, Hale projects immense respect and love for these people—and perhaps, on some level, he truly feels it—but his true motives are revealed almost immediately in one of the first pieces of advice he gives to his nephew: marry an Osage woman, so that their wealth might one day be yours. Hale is devious from the moment we meet him, but his “charming Southern gentleman” bravado and light vocal cadence lend him a softness and warmth that we’re not used to seeing from De Niro’s characters.
Ernest, on the other hand, is not so conniving, at least not from the outset. If anything, he’s an idiot, and the film repeatedly reminds us of that. DiCaprio embraces the role with scuzzball simplicity; Ernest likes drinking, betting, and women. And he trusts his uncle. Simple as.
He meets and falls for Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), one of four daughters of a wealthy Osage family, captivated by her wit and her quiet resistance to his courtship. She eventually lowers her guard, and they marry.
We follow the couple, Hale, and other figures of Fairfax over the course of about eight years. Shortly after Ernest and Mollie marry, Osage people begin turning up dead left and right—namely, Mollie’s family. The local police gesture at investigations, but as far as they’re concerned, there isn’t much to uncover. The Osage people are sickly, after all. Most of them die by 50. Alcoholism, depression, and diabetes run rampant—it’s just pure bad luck.
Of course, it wasn’t. It would eventually be discovered, by a fledgling FBI, that there were at least 60 murders of wealthy Osage people in the area between 1918 and 1931. Hale was tied to over 20 of them.
Scorsese guides us through this conspiracy primarily from Ernest’s and Mollie’s perspectives, though it’s clear we are only getting the partial truth from Ernest for most of the movie. He’s a gullible dipshit, certainly, but he’s more aware of what’s happening (and often directly involved) than he lets on.
Ernest’s story is a fascinating journey through a character; Scorsese and Eric Roth’s script continually coaxes you into empathy while simultaneously, casually, revealing deeper and deeper depravity. We want to believe Ernest was too stupid to know what he was doing, because he seems to genuinely love his wife and family, and even shows disgust at his uncle’s orders. But the opportunities for redemption (or at least atonement) abound, and Ernest continues to let them slip by.
DiCaprio smartly fools us with his own foolishness, emphasizing Ernest’s impish nature early on, and then leaning harder into denial and shock as his uncle’s directives become more brazen and cruel. Likewise, De Niro embraces us with open arms, the same as Hale does with the Osage people—never not slimy, but also somehow endearing in short bursts. It’s one of the best performances of his career.
But the film rests much of its heft on the confident shoulders of Lily Gladstone. She has far less dialogue than DiCaprio or De Niro, but Mollie is the quiet, observant type. Just because she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand what’s going on. And Gladstone conveys that handily, with steely eyes and a subtle grimace that speaks more to Mollie’s knowing disdain and her awareness of the betrayal around her than any tearful, screaming monologue ever could. It’s a subtle powerhouse of a performance that stands huge in contrast to the talky devilishness of De Niro and DiCaprio.
If I have a complaint—no, it’s not the length—it’s that Mollie and her fellow Osage people don’t have a lot to do in the story. Granted, Gladstone’s performance speaks volumes on behalf of all of them, and the film is steeped in what appear to be authentic, detailed portrayals of traditional Osage language, clothing, and practices—Scorsese worked extensively with the Osage Nation to get their representation correct. And I can empathize with the compulsion to focus on Ernest and Hale, whose involvement and actions are inevitably much more thoroughly documented. But we view Mollie’s increasing awareness of the situation, and the decisions she makes, almost entirely through Ernest’s lens, and I think some of the latter-third emotional pulls could have landed harder if we’d been shown more of her perspective along the way.
Likewise, her family members and the authorities within the Osage community are tertiary characters at best. I would have appreciated an ongoing dialogue between Osage representatives and the white law enforcement (or civilians) they call on for help.
The film’s final note also leaves me conflicted. I won’t spoil the scene, but it’s a darkly comedic yet sobering rejection of the text card-style epilogue that so many historical dramas deploy. I can see what Scorsese is going for, and on that level, it’s a resonant (and certainly memorable) allegory for the way indigenous stories wind up being told through the filter of the colonizer. But something about ending on such a direct comment from Scorsese, while also feeling how I do about the film’s lack of intimacy with Mollie’s perspective, felt off.
Still, Killers of the Flower Moon is a compelling and effectually disheartening examination of the destruction of indigenous societies at the hands of cunning invaders. It’s also surprisingly funny in places, and manages a swift pace through its gargantuan 206-minute runtime. Scorsese has done it again, and it’s refreshing to see a director of his longevity and repute continue to expand into new subject matter and ideas so deep into his career.
Earlier this year, Scorsese seems to have had a reconciliation with his mortality and his urge to do more in what little time he has left, so I’m confident Killers will not be the last of his continued exploration of cinematic expression. I hope not, anyway, and I’m grateful that one of the medium’s greatest voices is still pushing his own boundaries.