Killers of the Flower Moon is a film about the way history is written into story, about how and why the authors of our cultural record choose the tales they tell and particularly who ends up left out of the record. It’s a story about the banal realities of racism, of evil and of love — all of which can exist simultaneously in the heart of man without any need for the mind to square their inherent contradictions.
It’s noble in its aims and mostly successful in them. But it’s not a history film, and the narrative choices director and co-writer Martin Scorsese makes to further the story he wanted to explore won’t please audiences looking for a film that provides a broad reckoning with the scope of the 1920s Osage murders or the inherently bleak history of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. This just isn’t that movie, and it seems unfair to judge it on the grounds of a different film yet to be made by a different filmmaker with separate aims and passions to follow.
Instead, Scorsese explores his themes of cultural rot and complicated souls through an understated character study of criminals so empowered by frontier lawlessness and racial hierarchies that they barely even hide their grievous misdeeds; of shocking and doomed love between two people whose worlds are miles apart but who are drawn together regardless. Much has been made of the film’s 206-minute runtime, but who gives a shit? It fills every second of them with gorgeous, empathetic and thoughtful filmmaking that never lets up for a second.
The year is 1918, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aimless white man of below-average intelligence freshly returned from World War I without a plan or purpose. He finds home with his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy political tycoon on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma who also sees after Ernest’s brother, Byron (Scott Shepherd). King Hale is the quintessential white monster — an elderly man who speaks the Osage language and respects their customs, posing as a friend to all while secretly scheming to steal their wealth at any chance he can get.
And the wealth is extraordinary: Although forced genocidal migration pushed the Osage from their ancestral lands in Missouri all the way to the blighted agricultural wastelands of Oklahoma, the amount of oil discovered under their land turned them into some of the richest people in the United States.
Although Hale reveals his contemptuous attitude toward his community soon after his nephew arrives, the full scale and scope of his murderous plots only gradually become apparent. He’s patient in his pursuit of what he sees as rightfully his. Historically, Hale wasn’t the only one: Plots to steal the oil-promising headrights of Native Americans through marriage and murder became so severe that the United States Congress eventually had to intervene. The scale of atrocities committed on the Osage Reservation is far broader than depicted in Killers of the Flower Moon and has been told in many books; hopefully, it will continue to be explored in future films and stories.
This particular story, though, focuses primarily on Hale’s plot, and the development of Ernest’s marriage to Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), who also happens to be one of four sisters in a family whose mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal), owns vast headrights the women are set to inherit. Hale encourages Ernest to lavish Mollie with attention, and the younger man undeniably falls in love with his eventual wife. But that doesn’t mean he objects to Hale’s plot to have her family killed one by one and ensure the headrights eventually make their way into his own pocket.
The ability for Ernest to love his wife while destroying all she holds dear via assassins, plots and eventually direct poisoning makes for the most captivating character work in the film, buoyed by a tremendous performance by DiCaprio as an astonishingly evil and truly idiotic man. There’s a version of the story that focuses on Hale’s plots in a manner casting both of the men as high-level plotters, masterminds of criminal enterprise eventually caught by the heroic federal government who bring justice to the Osage people.
That’s not the tale as Scorcese tells it: Hale and Ernest are terrible criminals, killing and hurting people they love in broad daylight because the police are paid off and racist anyway, and because the federal government doesn’t really give a shit until their methods get too loud. The horrors committed are vastly more upsetting because of the utter mundanity of the men committing them. When the Feds do become involved (personified perfectly by everyman Jesse Plemons as Tom White), they’re not from the Eliot Ness school of pulp heroics; it’s not like their targets are especially wily or that their motivations as lawmen are to protect the Osage community.
That’s all to say this isn’t a hagiography of a system that has never worked for most of the citizens of the United States, and especially not for minority communities or the lower classes in general. There is not a hint of redemption for DiCaprio’s Ernest, either, a confounding criticism I’ve seen levied at the film that makes no sense to me. His decisions at the end of the film regarding the court case against Hale are selfish to the last moment; he’s an everyday monster, and his true love for Mollie only makes him even more despicable and terrifying. That Scorsese humanizes him — a feat he’s managed with criminals and jerks for his whole career — isn’t the same as redeeming the man. All evil is fundamentally human.
I understand, however, where the criticisms come from regarding Scorsese’s choice to focus on Hale and Ernest rather than Osage protagonists, an issue that feels even more pronounced given the raw power of Gladstone’s performance as Mollie. Much has been made of Scorsese’s work with contemporary tribal authorities to make his depiction of their people as accurate and respectful as possible, and Gladstone often serves as narrator at the beginning of the story, establishing the rights, customs and culture that Hale and Ernest set out to destroy. The major emotional beats at the end of the story also belong to her, but her performance is often filled with subtleties, especially toward the conclusion.
There’s a version of this story that takes a much larger view of the Osage murders or one told specifically from her or her sisters’ perspectives: I hope to see it someday, and I don’t think it’s a flaw that Killers of the Flower Moon takes a different view — especially given the way in which Scorsese opens the film with the aesthetics of a silent picture and closes them with a recreation of the Lucky Strike radio hour that first aired the story of the Osage murders, at Hoover’s approval. In the interest of avoiding further spoilers for the incredible epilogue, there’s a clear message being told about the way we write and record history and indeed the ways in which we can try to redeem forgotten stories through new tellings and empathic excavation of pasts purposefully forgotten. Some audiences will feel Scorsese’s efforts aren’t adequate or from the proper perspective, and that’s totally fine. But I think Killers represents a powerful, profound effort to do so from a man who knows the limitations of his own vantage point and the tools at his disposal, collected and refined over decades. He knows, too, that perhaps his film will open the door to the right people to tell their versions of the story.