From the crime and gangster infested “Goodfellas,” to “The Wolf of Wall Street” centered on vampiric stock market thieves, master director Martin Scorsese’s filmography has often concerned itself with American sins driven by infinite greed.
So it is perhaps no surprise that Scorsese would be the one to cinematically adapt David Grann’s searing true-crime book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” for the big screen, uncompromisingly illustrating a forgotten chapter of one of America’s original sins: white people’s coldhearted killing of Native American tribes.
In that regard, his “Killers of the Flower Moon” is vast and vital in its scale, purpose and emotional scope, a Western-thriller and ensemble piece that is every bit a Scorsese crime picture as one can dare to imagine.
The impeccably researched book by Grann (also the author of “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon”) neither tells a customary frontier-era tale about this land’s indigenous people (which has been the more traditional avenue in cinema) nor features a stock white savior. Grann instead recounts a shockingly lesser known and shattering true-story from early 20th-century Oklahoma.
That region was marked by what’s known as the “Reign of Terror” during the first half of the 1920s, a phase of indigenous existence Scorsese bursts open through some major and thoughtful structural changes from the book. We learn that the Osage Nation were among the richest people in the world then. There were endless oil reserves to go around in their Oklahoma territory, where they were moved to after getting robbed out of their settlements across Louisiana and Kansas through unkept governmental promises.
Knowing that the Oklahoma soils were rich with petroleum, the Osage signed a deal they had smartly worded: they would not only be the sole proprietor of those soils, but also whatever mineral might be underneath it. Then came the oil, erupting on the surface of the dry earth with ear-splitting promise, captured through repeat Scorsese cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s textured lens and wide, layered vistas with immense power in the film’s early moments.
Predictably, white men were quick to want a slice before the natural resources inevitably dried out. One of those ruthless men was Ernest Burkhart, a war veteran of average intellect, played stunningly by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his most complicated roles yet, that strikes a fiercely tough balance between drawing contempt and pity. Another was Ernest’s rather Trump-ian cattle rancher uncle William Hale, portrayed by a casually intimidating Robert De Niro with a conniving register that brings to mind his own Jimmy Conway from “Goodfellas.”
A law passed by Congress in 1921 enabled these men by enforcing a financial guardian onto every wealthy Osage. Among them was Mollie, played with stealthy poise and immense dignity by Lily Gladstone (soon to be seen in the thematically connected “Fancy Dance,” on the “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW)” epidemic).
What followed was immeasurable theft and dozens of suspicious deaths (as in, murders) that went uninvestigated: young people losing their health due to mysterious diseases, killings made to look like suicides, all in the name of “guardians” stealing the Osage people’s headrights. The cases were so many that the US government, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, finally sent an investigative unit to the area as the earliest iteration of the FBI.
Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth, a name well-versed in complicated script structures across the likes of “Dune,” “Munich” and “The Insider,” open with this background, but keep it somewhat short on information, perhaps relying too heavily on a misjudged assumption that the audience is already aware of this setup, either through having read Grann’s book or general historical knowledge.
Regardless of the catch-up the viewers might have to do, the intro is still breathtaking, observing the adults of an Osage tribe lamenting their relocation and what the future will hold for them with their kids likely to forget their own culture in the hands of white men. There is then celebration upon hitting an oil line, which also introduces us to the brawniest segments of Robbie Robertson’s bravura score: drummy, pulsating and defiantly hair-rising, like the sounds of the earth brimming with liquid gold right before it ruptures.
Scorsese augments this intro with a playful short film shot on grainy black and white in the style of the era’s silents, showing the Osage in lavish clothes and on posh golf courses enjoying their wealth, while the white people run their errands and drive them around. It is in this climate that Ernest arrives in Oklahoma, with the film swiftly switching back to color as we notice his goofily mid-parted hair. His confusion is palpable when a wealthy Osage proudly tells Ernest, “This is my land.”
While they set the book in motion, the murders of Charlie Whitehorn and Mollie’s sister Anna Kyle Brown don’t occur until nearly an hour into the film, a smart decision by Scorsese and Roth that gives much needed breathing room to the eventual coupling of Ernest and Mollie, with the backdrop of legendary Jack Fisk’s lived-in production design, in step with Jacqueline West’s richly detailed costuming. In exchanges between Ernest and Hale, who’s known as “The King of the Osage Hills” and mostly liked as a righteous man, you can blatantly see the slimy latter’s overeager encouragement of Ernest to pursue Mollie’s hand in marriage.
“Can you stand their kind,” asks Hale to his nephew in one scene, among the earlier indications of both his sinister character’s racism and Ernest’s gullibility. Amusingly enough, some of these exchanges also resemble the unnervingly comical undertones of a dark moment in “The Wolf of Wall Street” with the famous chest-thumping. While Ernest and Hale don’t slam their fists on their own torsos, the greed they display, the ways in which they dehumanize those who trust them, is similar.
After much flirtation between Ernest and Mollie—which are among the strongest scenes of “Killers of the Flower Moon” because of the mesmerizing presence of Gladstone—the two finally tie the knot through a beautiful wedding and, to Hale’s disapproval, have children. But even during their early, innocent trysts, it doesn’t escape Robertson’s ominous musical cues that there is something suspenseful underneath it all, something to approach and handle with caution.
And that is why DiCaprio’s performance is titanic here in a role that asks a lot of him. Thanks to his commitment to the layers of Ernest, you buy the character both as a money-crazed, murderous and power-hungry pawn of Hale’s and someone who actually did fall in love with his wife once. That dichotomy is everywhere in DiCaprio’s acting and guilty body language; it’s even in his hairdo that swiftly loses its silly middle part in due course and becomes a menacingly slick and subtle side-sweep. Of course, Mollie is no one’s fool—more a patient and clever seer than an empty talker, she knows immediately that Ernest’s after money. But she follows the love, believing in Ernest’s genuine need to get settled in a caring home.
Once the murders arrive, the film becomes a blistering Scorsese gangster movie enmeshed with a Western, with back-alley murders, shady under-the-table dealings and Thelma Schoonmaker’s zippy editing across various moving parts that gives the multi-pronged story its shape and speed. The script also strives to dissect the different facets of American racism, making sure that the Tulsa race massacre (which happened so close to the Osage murders) and the evil deeds of the KKK are woven into the story in ways meaningful and alarming.
Admittedly, the bureau of investigation’s Tom White (a terrific Jesse Plemons) enters the film a little too late, once Mollie herself—despite her mysteriously deteriorating health—visits Washington and demands change upon the killings of not only Anna, but her two other sisters, her mother, cousin, brother-in-law and a private investigator that she hired.
It’s soul-wrenching to watch Mollie slowly decline through ferocious segments Scorsese orchestrates like a devastating thriller, somehow managing to maintain the suspense even though the evildoers are never hidden. It’s also a little upsetting that Mollie becomes more of a back-burner player during a large chunk of the film. As previously noted, this is very much by the design of the story. Regardless, one can’t help but wonder whether Scorsese and Roth could have gone deeper with her character and family life in the film’s first act—it feels like the nearly 206-minute runtime would have had room for it.
Still, Gladstone delivers a silently towering performance in the final stretch as Mollie tries to parse out her feelings. And Scorsese reaches an unexpectedly delicate, even masterful conclusion for “Killers of the Flower Moon” after a striking police procedural chapter that features Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow in explosive judicial parts. It’s a spiritual, personal and deeply human parting note that feels as specific and enormous as the rest of the film, bleeding for the departed in reverberating silence.