December 27, 2023

Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” is Powerful Hollywood History

By: Justin Tucker

The history of the United States of America has many shameful episodes. Our country’s horrendous treatment of indigenous people is one such episode. The manifest destiny of European-American westward settlement meant conquest, broken promises, and death for Native Americans. Even our much-revered Declaration of Independence accuses King George III of endeavoring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” in its list of grievances with the monarch.

In 1926, the world was shocked by the trials that exposed the murders of wealthy members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. The murders were orchestrated and committed by avaricious whites to take possession of the oil headrights that brought wealth to the Osage. The events were depicted that same year in a silent film entitled Tragedies of the Osage Hills. The case was formative for the agency that would eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigation with a fictionalized account of the murders told in the 1959 film The FBI Story. Over time, the events faded from the collective memory.

The publication of the non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann renewed interest in the Osage Nation murders when it became a bestseller. Now, with director Martin Scorsese’s beautifully solemn adaptation, the victims of this heartbreaking moment in American history have been respectfully honored and will raise more awareness about the tragedy than ever before.

Killers of the Flower Moon is also the best film directed by Scorsese since The Departed. Having helped modernize the gangster genre with films like Mean Streets and GoodFellas, Scorsese has now made his first Western. It is a long overdue event for Maestro Scorsese to finally take on this most American of genres. Revisionist in its approach, it is a Western greatly sympathetic to the Osage Nation with the white antagonists portrayed as the savages. It throws out conventional notions of how the white hats and black hats are presented. It is also a story about the corruptibility of humankind, especially when driven by greed and ethnic bigotry. It shows how that corruptibility leads to violent dehumanization and infects institutions meant to protect people.

Leonardo DiCaprio is beguiling as the dim and drunk Great War veteran Ernest Burkhart. He arrives in Oklahoma to live with his rancher uncle, King Hale, played by the also beguiling  Robert DeNiro in one of the best roles of his latter filmography. Hale is genteel and a man of prominence in the local community. He also purports to be a friend and advocate of the Osage people.

Hale introduces Ernest to wealthy Osage woman Molly Kyle, played by Lily Gladstone in a dignified, career-making, and Oscar-worthy performance. She, her family, and her fellow Osage benefit from their oil headrights but only under the patronizing oversight and permission of the white government. She is charmed by Ernest and they get married and start a family. But as many of her fellow Osage continue to die without any thorough investigation, she begins to suspect that perhaps the people closest to her may be involved in the murders.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the second film in a row after The Irishman that Scorsese released in theaters before going to a streaming service, this time at Apple TV+. The film’s running time, which may have deterred some folks from seeing Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography in the cinema, will be easier to take in with streaming audiences thanks to the ability to pause or watch at their own pace. As with movies like CODA, also streaming at Apple TV+, Killers of the Flower Moon is a streamer-produced film that has garnered major award nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Drama. The accolades are much deserved as the film stands among the best of 2023.