Based on David Grann’s broadly lauded best-selling book, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is set in 1920s Oklahoma and depicts the serial murder of members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation, a string of brutal crimes that came to be known as the Reign of Terror
Killers of the Flower Moon is Martin Scorsese’s requiem for the country, a chant for the death of the Native American soul at the hand of the American Dream and Manifest Destiny. The Osage Indians here both achieve it and are denied it (prosperity, equality, wealth). Killers of the Flower Moon is the twisted love story that results when capitalism mates with native spiritualism that is restricted; when hope collides with vampiric greed and jealous, entitlement that verges on the genocidal.
Scorsesese has taken what was vitally human, cruelly, uniquely American from David Grann’s nonfiction source on the serial murders of many oil wealthy Osage, their Reign of Terror, and molded it into a sub genre of his own genius. With its sweeping vistas and intricate, swooping camera, Killers is peripherally a western. The civilization the Osage developed is a purgatory between spirit and hell, a churning, raucous, rebellious settlement that reflects the earlier gold rush, and lives uncomfortably in the more brutish, greedy delusions of the white man’s American Dream. No wonder the more common sense members of the tribe choose to live in big houses away from it.
Leonardo’s DiCaprio, Ernest Burkhart character is caught between the worst and better motives and traits of the American Dream. Ernest is under the sway of his avaricious uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a glad handing cattle baron with land grabbing intent, whose evil is cloaked with sympathetic charm. Hale’s pretend title reflects his internal ambitions to be the ”King of the Osage Hills.” Ernest is the in between these two worlds, a sort of guide for the audience to experience and navigate through this realm. Symbolically he can be nothing more than a chauffeur, riding whites and Osage to and from their destined collisions. Fittingly he meets and marries his Osage in between, Mollie (Lily Gladstone) wasting away from untreated diabetes, becoming a literal ghost echo of the Osage pride and once indomitable spirit.
Ernest and Mollie’s love develops gracefully, naturally. They visually, emotionally fit and make sense together. Their relationship is the emotional ground for both audience and story. Ernest is beaten up by life, his war experience. His frown is only lifted upwards by the sight of Mollie.
The FBI part of the Grann book barely makes an appearance. It doesn’t need to. This version of Killers is not really their story. It’s not a true mystery. The audience knows who the murders are. There is enough of the Osage’s disastrous relations with the United States, to connect their past to the present- how the guardian system the government instituted operated to control the tribe and strip their wealth from their mineral rights. ( Full-blooded American Indians where often declared incompetent and appointed white guardians.) That history emerges in visual asides- an illustrated Indian culture children’s book, tribal meetings, overhead radio stories.
The movie’s heart is a tragic romance developed through the collision of other film genres exploding through- westerns, domestic dramas, mysteries, police procedurals.
It can be unsettling, especially when Scorsese decides to twist the genre conventions. Never knowing where the story will go next keeps the audience guessing, engaged. Only the requisite courtroom trial drains the energy. It separates the audience from Ernest and Mollie. It has to turn tragic because that’s the history. The emulsion of the romance has been stripped and Killers ends in a sterile footnote, a radio play that functions as after titles.
Until then the contrast between DiCaprio physically demonstrative acting and Gladstone’s more reserved, internal style creates an interesting whole love story that is flawed, but more importantly, humanly complete. Her death is the last murder of her tribe and the reservation becomes white property. Oil wealth has liberated and condemned her and her tribe. Their love was always meant to be a pawn’s sacrifice.
Killers of the Flower Moon gets a 3.5 out of 5 or a B+.
- Eric Roth
- Martin Scorsese
by David Grann
- May 20, 2023(Cannes)
- October 20, 2023(United States)