Warning: Spoilers and sensitive content.
Only a filmmaker perfectly assured of the immense weight their name carries in the cinematic milieu would challenge their audience to an experience like Killers of the Flower Moon.
Based on David Grann’s best-selling account of a grisly string of murders in Osage County, Oklahoma and the subsequent FBI investigation, Martin Scorsese’s latest entry into his fabled filmography clocks in at nearly three-and-a-half hours. The movie deviates from the average detective flick by making it clear very early on that the mastermind behind the murders is cattle-rancher William “King” Hale, who seeks the “headrights” to the Osage Nation’s oil-rich land. The remaining run-time is devoted to spotlighting the crimes themselves and their effects on the Osage community.
I entered the theater at half-past seven, along with about five others who could afford to spend the entirety of their Tuesday night at the movies. I emerged at half-past eleven with the sickening feeling that, instead of having enjoyed a new film, I had borne witness to an old genocide.
That is not to say that Killers of the Flower Moon lacks artistic trappings — far from it. Replete with sprawling aerials of pastoral Oklahoma and otherworldly visions on death’s doorstep, the visual language of the movie is as meditative as it gets in the realist modus of Scorsese. Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting jowls and a godfather-underbite, plays the part of Ernest Burkhart, our weak-willed antihero who has fallen under his controlling uncle’s thumb, to perfection. DiCaprio is underpinned by Lily Gladstone in her breakout role, similarly compelling as Molly Burkhart, a diabetic Osage heiress betrayed by her beloved husband Ernest. De Niro rounds out the cast as Ernest’s cattle-rancher uncle William Hale, reprising the role of a charming, ruthless paterfamilias undone by the law à la Goodfellas and The Untouchables.
The gravity of the subject matter notwithstanding, the screenplay is full of attempts at humor, the success of which varies. DiCaprio’s repeated refrain of “I love money!” as he gambles away stolen jewelry recalls his hilarious and unapologetic indecency as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (also directed by Scorsese). The relationship between Ernest and his uncle William proves especially comedically fruitful, featuring a goggled De Niro screaming “LOOK AT ME LIKE THIS MAKES SENSE!” and DiCaprio down on his elbows in a Masonic lodge, taking a paddle to the behind in punishment for his disobedience. It’s as funny as it is appalling when you consider that a third of America’s presidents have been Freemasons. On the other hand, Brendan Fraser’s overwrought performance as Ernest’s crooked lawyer seems to belong to a different genre entirely, as do the black and white title cards during the film’s exposition. An acerbic wit has always been a trademark of Scorsese’s style, and this movie is no exception, despite the occasional misses.
At its core, however, this movie is fundamentally different from other Scorsese offerings. The director himself appears twice—once before the beginning to describe the close collaboration with the Osage Nation throughout the production process, and again at the close in an eerie pantomime of a radio show to read the obituary of the real Molly Burkhart, which bears no mention of the murders—to establish that this is a movie concerned first and foremost with telling the truth, the full truth, about what happened in Osage County.
Not a drop of bloodshed is left to the imagination, Scorsese shoots each murder in a continuous long shot with brutal objectivity. The villainy is gruesome and lacks all the glamor on display in earlier Scorsese films. In the case of Molly’s sister Anna Brown (Cara Jade Myers), we see her being led into the woods in a drunken stupor, painstakingly positioned and shot through the top of the head, though the audience already knows exactly what happened. In moments like this, narrative cohesion takes the back seat to precision. The object is not so much to show the audience a good time, but to document the atrocities orchestrated by William Hale in all their baseness.
In this mission, Killers of the Flower Moon succeeds beyond a doubt, breaking the mold of earlier attempts at grappling with America’s thorny colonial history. Those searching for a white savior in this movie will be disappointed to find that the only potential candidate is a frumpy-looking Jesse Plemons in the role of an FBI agent. Here, America’s brutality towards Native Americans is portrayed accurately as a stab in the back.
The final diegetic scene of the movie is a conversation between Ernest, who has just testified to his involvement in the murders of his wife’s sisters, and Molly. Ernest gropes for some kind of absolution by assuring her that, having told the truth, he feels relief and repentance, but an unmoved Molly responds to his assurances by asking him one simple question: What was in the “insulin” shots he was injecting her with?
Molly watches, along with the audience who witnessed Ernest dilute his wife’s insulin with narcotics, as Ernest’s face contorts in a struggle to accept the depravity of his own crime. Following a charged silence, the word “insulin” escapes his lips in a near-whisper, leaving us with a chilling image of the ultimate sin that the entire movie strives to remedy: the lies we have told, as a nation, to the Osage Nation and other tribes whose stories have yet to be told on the big screen.
Cover image via Paramount Pictures and Apple TV+.