Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an adaptation of the non-fiction David Grann novel of the same name that investigates the killings of wealthy Osage people who found big oil deposits underneath their land in 1920’s Oklahoma. It’s quite a subversive film for the iconic octogenarian. The film’s length and scope allow Scorsese to reckon with the inherent evils and blood that this country is built on, as well as the consequences of complicity in the face of systemic discrimination.
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, whose uncle, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), was the mastermind of a plot to take out Osage inheritors of oil profits to collect them himself. The conspiracy took advantage of laws designed to prevent Osage people from controlling their own finances, which left land headrights in the hands of white beneficiaries and required many Osage people to marry into white families. The primary focus of the film, in fact, is Ernest’s marriage to Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman belonging to a wealthy family whose members were slowly eliminated one by one while she was poisoned by her husband.
The novel is a brilliant work of journalism and storytelling within itself. It’s structured more as a mystery and true crime epic, leading you through the federal investigations of the murders, which were estimated to total 20 deaths as of public record. The novel’s epilogue follows Grann’s visits to Osage County while researching his story. He suspects many more Osage deaths at the time were connected to what is now referred to as ‘the Reign of Terror’ but were swept under the rug due to the FBI’s failure to find proper justice for them.
By flipping the narrative structure of the novel and following the perspectives of the white male killers of the Osage people, the film somehow manages to be more chilling in its portrayal of this story. Though I expected the first hour or so of the film to depict how several white men got looped into the conspiracy or about how they went about their killings, I was mistaken. Instead, the decision to murder is a bygone conclusion and none of the men involved show any remorse throughout the 210-minute runtime of the film.
One scene shows a man shooting an Osage woman coming home with her baby in a stroller and then placing the gun in her lifeless hand before leaving with the baby. We are left to assume that the man was the woman's husband and father to her child, though we never revisit or hear of these characters again. It’s a specific level of cruelty and evil that Scorsese has never depicted before, even after a 50-year career that chronicled a rough history of the inherent criminality of the American Dream, from New York gangsters of the 19th century to Wall Street crooks of the 90s.
After the release of 2019’s “The Irishman”, a few critics complained about the perceived glorification of toxic masculinity and violence in the director’s filmography, labelling him solely as a director of gangster films. Besides the point that his body of work extends beyond just gangster films, with period-piece romances like “The Age of Innocence” and comedies like “After Hours”, it is also unwise to see any of his films as a celebration of criminality rather than an indictment of masculinity and violence told through true stories.
This is why “Killers” depicts the Reign of Terror with such little spectacle — murders are quick and carried out by white men who greet you with a smile and claim to have love for you. The longer you spend time with these characters, the more you see how despicable they are, allowing DiCaprio in particular to weaponize his expert ability for playing pathetic buffoons with no self-awareness. His twisted and morally bankrupt treatment of Mollie becomes a good representation of the horrific greed and evil of the systemic genocide of Osage people.
Working closely with Osage actors, costume and set designers, and one language consultant, Scorsese can represent and honor the Osage traditions and history quite well, avoiding sticking to an awful track record of Native American representation in Hollywood. Though the story is set in an extremely dark period of our history which is reflected by Rodrigo Prieto’s gloomy cinematography, I felt the film was rooted in a sense of faith towards Osage spiritualism. Throughout the film, we see Mollie perform burial rituals with sunlight beaming down on her, giving viewers a moment to breathe while they’re away from the wolves that lurk in the shadows. Gladstone perfectly plays the exhausted and painful hope Mollie carries, and she’s been a symbol for nearly a century later.
I hope to see more opportunities for Native American actors in the future as well as more visibility for Osage filmmakers in Hollywood. As great as the film is at telling the world this story on such a large scale, with a $200M budget that admittedly would not have been possible if not for the big names involved in making it, it should not and cannot be the only representation we see. It is also criminal that both Gladstone and Cara Jade Myers, who delivered two standout performances in this, have spoken about being on the verge of quitting acting before being cast. Without spoiling the film's brilliant ending, I think it's clear that Scorsese is keenly aware of this as well as of the inherent reductive manner of the true crime genre as a whole.