'Killers of the Flower Moon': A powerful journey into the dark heart of American history

Something is rotten in the state of Oklahoma. At least, that’s true in Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which examines a conspiracy of betrayal and murder—perpetrated during the sunset of the Wild West against the Osage Native Americans of Oklahoma—that is as grotesque and far-reaching as that in Hamlet’s Denmark.

In the well-trod Western landscape, Scorsese tells a powerful, searing, and uniquely penetrating narrative about the dark heart of American history. He introduces us to the film’s thematic essence of poison and purity in its very first frames. “Killers of the Flower Moon” opens like an epic poem; imbued with rich, deeply symbolic imagery (shot by Rodrigo Prieto, the film is more visually rich and expansive than perhaps anything Scorsese has done) and a pounding, soulful score (by the late Robbie Robertson), it establishes the basics of the story to follow. We see the undulating (and flowery) virgin hills of the Osage Nation, the tribe whose sufferings the film depicts, a vista which will soon be pockmarked by oil derricks. A group of young Osage men bathe in the black gold itself, recently sprung from the arid earth to which the tribe had felt itself condemned by a history of relocation. The men are innocent and joyous, oblivious to the fact that they will soon be bathing in blood. An elder wails inside the tribe’s round house for lives lost, as children sneak glimpses inside, half-conscious of the cruel inheritance of their people. And then there is the first image of the source of that cruel inheritance itself; a train arrives at a nearby town, depositing a throng of white wildcatters and opportunists, seeking to strike it rich in the waning American West, by any means necessary.

Chief among these men is Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), recently returned from wartime France, where he served the American Expeditionary Force as a cook. He returns to the estate of his uncle, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), who was a domineering presence in his youth (Ernest calls him “King”). Fluent in Osage and munificent with his cattle fortune, Hale is a larger-than-life figure and a pillar of the community—both white and tribal. But in their less than avuncular encounter, he asks Ernest some curiously probing questions. Did Ernest contract venereal disease in France? And, when it comes to women, does he have a preference for color? In Hale’s words, does he like “red?”

Hale — as an independent and avaricious frontiersman with a rogue sense of morality and a hatred of outside intervention — is a classic man of the American West, shaped by the Gilded Age ethos of unfettered capitalistic exploitation. Ernest, as a different kind of man of the West — an opportunist in the mold of the forty-niners or the sooners (“I do love that money,” he says) — becomes an unwitting pawn in Hale’s larger criminal conspiracy: to steal the oil-rich land of the Osage Indians through a series of marriages into the tribe’s matrilineal headright system, and through other, more naked tools, including assassination. Ernest woos and marries Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a wise, strong Osage woman who suffers from diabetes. He cares for her, raises kids with her, and even, just maybe, loves her. But at every juncture when he must choose between her and advancing his own fortunes, he chooses the latter.

This acquisitive, rule-breaking spirit motivates the patently evil schemes of Hale and the entire white community of Osage County, which is collectively as complicit in the plot as were the passengers of the Orient Express. Embodying the worst impulses of robber baron capitalism and cowboy morality, an incongruous coterie of oilmen, ranch hands, businessmen, Klansmen, priests, and ex-cons engage in a conspiracy of widespread murder against the Osage people of Oklahoma, with lucrative benefits—the Osage’s newly discovered oil reserves had made them the wealthiest people per capita in the world in the early 1920s.

The film is based on a book by New Yorker staff writer David Grann, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” The second part of that subtitle is incorporated rather late into the film, as it enters its “Goodfellas”-esque third act of legal unraveling, and Scorsese largely underplays it. Grann writes the book closest to the perspective of Tom White (Jesse Plemons) an agent with the nascent Bureau of Investigation, sent by its ambitious director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate the Osage crimes, which had previously flummoxed the nation’s top private investigators (some of whom were murdered for looking into the crimes).

Grann situates the Osage saga into a broader history of American law and lawlessness to great effect. Scorsese, constrained by his medium and the epic scope of the story, largely abandons this element of the narrative. He instead tells the story through the perspective of Ernest and Mollie, admittedly with very powerful results. Unsurprisingly,  Scorsese is more interested in the criminal and familial elements, which he renders with breathtaking beauty and gut-punching intensity. Where he challenges himself is in his moving portrayal of the Osage Native Americans, in which he endeavors for authenticity (casting many real tribal leaders) and empathy (telling the story through their eyes and even inserting himself into a cameo at the end in which he meditates on the tragedy, a bit ham-fistedly, I might add). Nevertheless, I was left a little bit disappointed by Scorsese’s sidelining of the law enforcement history element of the story, which is seemingly animated by his desire to paint a bleakly revisionist picture of a hero-less world.

Whereas Burkhart and Hale epitomize the worst impulses of the frontier spirit, as mixed with robber baron capitalism, Tom White embodies the paradigm of the honest lawman, part of a new, professional force designed to depart from the venality and brutality of the Pinkertons and the political corruption of the Teapot Dome era. It is hard not to see, in this clash between imposed federal authority and the reactively vicious frontier criminality, a larger story about American law. After all, Oklahoma is the state of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, murdering 168 people and arguably unleashing our troubled contemporary history of anti-government domestic terrorism, indeed paving the road to January 6th.

I wish that Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” would have found the nuance between white criminality and legality that Grann achieved in the book. Tom White need not have been lionized as an Eliot Ness, but the film would have perhaps been better with a more compelling investigation of the light as opposed to the dark. Grann’s book is about the “Birth of the FBI” just as much as it is about “The Osage Murders.” And whatever crimes the FBI has since committed (and they are indeed numerous, particularly under the long reign of the tyrannical J. Edgar Hoover), it is nevertheless a vital institution in American life which strives to prevent the occurrence of murder and crimes of hate.

Martin Scorsese loves a classic rise and fall narrative, rendering in meticulous detail the workings of an evil enterprise, and then ripping the rug out from under in it in bravura finales of Greek tragic inevitability. This approach, deeply impacted by Scorsese’s young attraction to Catholicism and the power of guilt, has motivated many of his greatest films, but the coda of “Flower Moon” is curiously tamer, with more routine courtroom scenes. It is the scenes in which White and his fellow agents interrogate Ernest and the other conspirators that are the most gripping and which could be emphasized even more. Imagine the film’s poster with a brooding Ernest on the left and a noble, contemplative Tom White on the other side — that conflict ought to have been mined further.

And strangely enough, given the film’s runtime, Scorsese cuts the story short. In the book, Grann describes the moment that the convicted William Hale arrives at the infamous Fort Leavenworth penitentiary, where Tom White was appointed warden as a promotion for his success on the Osage case. They share a moment of mutual recognition, with a simple, pathetic “howdy,” Why does Marty deny us the satisfaction of seeing Hale, the former cattle baron, toil away on the prison farm? It would have provided an exquisite moment, reminiscent of the searingly memorable scene in “The Irishman,” in which an incarcerated and geriatric Joe Pesci shares some grape juice and bread with Robert De Niro, a sad substitute for the oenological luxuries they enjoyed in their former lives in the mob.

But Scorsese nobly makes a deliberate dramatic choice to put the Osage at the center of his tale. As the morality of the old West cedes to the modern, law-and-order American state, the original inhabitants of the continent are, as ever, collateral damage. Scorsese has publicly discussed his admiration of Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist Westerns and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” So where “Killers of the Flower Moon” lacks the traits of a great Scorsese movie, it amply boasts the powers of this new Western genre. And where “The Irishman” was Scorsese’s magnificent final statement on the types of characters he spent a career investigating, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” amazingly, opens a new chapter in a film career of unparalleled accomplishment, and now, surprise. With his profoundly empathetic portrayal of Mollie Burkhart and, indeed, the entire Osage community, Scorsese has revealed a breadth of curiosity in the human condition which some might have doubted was there. That penetrating eye and restless fascination with putting people’s stories on screen, perhaps only shared among living filmmakers by Steven Spielberg, is what ultimately makes “Killers of the Flower Moon” a triumph.


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