‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Looks at a Series of Gruesome Murders in 1920s Oklahoma
Killers, based on a non-fiction book by David Grann, tells the devastating true story of the murder of Osage people by people who are intent on taking their wealth and their land through inheritance. The film centers around Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has just returned from World War I to his uncle’s ranch in Oklahoma. His uncle William “Bill” Hale (Robert De Niro) acts as a sort of “godfather” figure in the town of Fairfax — he literally tells people to call him ‘King’. He wields a large amount of power and on the surface seems to be an advocate for the Osage people. He speaks their language, he appears to respect them, and he often talks about how friendly he is with them.
But beneath that jovial and generous facade is a cruel, greedy, and power-hungry man. It doesn’t take long for Ernest, and the audience, to put together how involved Bill is in the string of murders plaguing the area. After striking rich with the oil on their land, the Osage nation became populated with some of the richest people in the country. The Osage managed to keep a hold of their land making them wealthy but also targets of men like Bill. It’s common practice for white men to marry Osage women and conveniently become their inheritors when their wife turns up dead. There’s no investigation and no questions.
Bill has his eye set on a big prize. Mollie Kyle, a daughter set to inherit a large parcel of land and money once her mother dies. He talks Ernest into befriending Mollie, and soon the two hit it off and get married. Ernest, for his part, is somewhat dimwitted, he proudly proclaims that he loves money, but is often conflicted when his uncle makes him do his bidding. It might be easy to say that Ernest, at his core, is a good man. But the film begs the question, just how much blood can you have on your hands and still be absolved of your crimes and be forgiven?
‘Killers’ Runtime Is Almost Justified
The film clocks in at 206 minutes, just three minutes shorter than The Irishman, and Killers of the Flower Moon earns its runtime. It’s long, but it feels necessary when telling a story of this magnitude. The pacing of the film changes in the third act, slowing down and often feeling lethargic, when the film introduces new players into the game in the form of Federal agents. It’s here that I have some reservations about Killers that mostly stems from the source material. David Grann’s original novel certainly glamorizes the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, a man who history has shown to be a polarizing figure. Yes, the federal government conducted an investigation on these murders, but only after over a dozen deaths, being paid a hefty amount from the Osage nation, and forcing the nation’s leaders to travel to Washington D.C. If the film has a hero, it portrays the feds, specifically Jesse Plemons‘ Tom White as one of its saviors.
In a film that opens with a vignette of a wild and unlawful land full of violence, corruption, and greed, it seems rather one-dimensional to have the government swooping in like heroes. After all, it’s only because of that government that Native Americans are relegated to Indian reservations. These governments are formed by the same people who stole their land, colonized their people, and erased their culture. For the most part, the people in town are open about their prejudice against the Indigenous people. Men openly court Native women who suspiciously end up dead a few years later, fueled by their own white rage and manifest destiny mentality. Scorsese isn’t shy about showing just how cruel these people are, and how easily they dehumanize Native Americans.
Is Martin Scorsese the Right Person to Direct a Story Like This?
But, I still have to wonder. Is Martin Scorsese the director to tell this story about an attempt at total annihilation? The film centers, like so many before it, around a white protagonist. Ernest is undoubtedly our point-of-view character with Bill acting as his foil. It’s hard to sympathize with someone who is content to kill the people closest to his wife in pursuit of money, no matter how conflicted or loving he may appear. It is Ernest’s guilt that we are faced with. Mollie, like so many other Native American characters, is written as a woman who must suffer continuously.
I have to wonder how this story would have been written and directed in the hands of a Native American director. It certainly wouldn’t have focused so much of the runtime on Ernest and Bill. The other Indigenous characters beyond Mollie don’t have distinct personalities or true development. It’s a disappointing aspect of Killers that sticks out after sitting through the full 206 minutes.
The Performances by DiCaprio, De Niro, and Gladstone Are Solid
While I question some decisions Scorsese made with Killers, there’s no doubt that this film is a triumph for its leading cast. DiCaprio plays Ernest with the full measure of his weaknesses. The character is inconsistent and frustrating, but DiCaprio certainly is not. He turns a character who should be despicable into one that is almost sympathetic. On the flip side, De Niro’s Bill is so perfectly slimy, an avaricious and calculating villain. He embodies the type of person who openly embeds himself into the Osage culture to seem non-threatening, becoming a respected member of their community. He seems the type to say, “I’m not racist, I have so many Osage friends!” De Niro plays him with all the delicious menace that’s necessary.
But it’s Gladstone’s performance as Mollie that really takes the cake. An unflinching woman who is strong-willed and enigmatic, Gladstone makes the most of her character, conveying all the agony and strength that is required of a woman who is almost constantly mourning.
Other performances by the likes of Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow appear only briefly as characters with no real development or depth. Still, Fraser and Lithgow both have enough power and presence to command a scene no matter the situation.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Is Worthy of a Watch For Scorsese Fans, But It Doesn’t Tell a Comprehensive Story
Ultimately, Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t break ground. It’s not a life-changing film, nor is it Scorsese’s crowning achievement. But it is a dedicated study of a horrific time in history and one that tries its best to present a balanced story. To Scorsese’s credit, he does not shy away from the injustice of the story. Even in the end, he is right to inform us that even when there is justice, there still is no justice for marginalized groups of people.
Bolstered by a strong cast and a luscious color palette and landscape, Killers of the Flower Moon is worthy of a watch for those who can look past its romanticization. For those looking for a film that puts Native American voices and characters on center stage or a more comprehensive story, continue moving on, even with three-and-a-half hours, this is not that film.