In the final moments of Killers of the Flower Moon, the new film by Martin Scorsese, viewers learn that the obituary of a major character fails to mention the Osage Murders. That episode in 20th-century history appears as little more than a footnote in most textbooks, if it appears at all. Given that Scorsese spends the preceding three hours and twenty-six minutes recalling the story of greed, betrayal, and slaughter, the omission feels more than glaring.
Then again, the writers of American history love to omit ugly episodes. Like the Tulasa Massacre (which appears prominently here) or the Mormon Wars, the Osage Murders qualify as one of the ugliest. In the 1920s, the Osage tribe, living in northern Oklahoma, gained international renown after discovering oil on their land. Their newfound cash attracts scores of other settlers—mostly white—who come to the city of Fairfax in hopes of making fortunes of their own. Yet, against this backdrop of prosperity and American dream fulfillment, prominent, wealthy members of the tribe fall victim to murder or otherwise premature deaths. Local authorities always decline to investigate.
A Dangerous Mystery
Amid the growing body count, war vet Ernie Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives to make his fortune. Ernie comes to town to appeal to his uncle Bill King Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy rancher, for some work and a little head start in getting settled. Hale recognizes Ernie isn’t the most intelligent man, but he has, in Hale’s words, “a good face.” Bill sets Ernie up as a cabbie, driving wealthy ladies around town. He also clarifies to his nephew that the path to real money veers through marriage: if Ernie marries an Osage woman, he will inherit her fortune upon her death. Osage women have a history of dying young, too.
At first, Ernie loves his new home, flirting with wealthy women all day and moonlighting as a bandit, teaming with other local riffraff to steal money and jewels from the locals. These men, by the way, don’t consider their actions evil. The Osage have plenty of money, so they can always buy more jewelry. Ernie also takes a shine to Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a single, wealthy heiress whose quiet demeanor hides a cunning intellect. Mollie sees the murder spreading in her community and knows death will one day come for her and her three sisters. She also sees Ernie as the coyote he is, but can’t help but find him bewitching. Ernie falls hard for Mollie, too, and begins to integrate into the Osage community. His newfound friends and wife, however, can’t overshadow Bill’s manipulative influence, and Ernie plays his role in the ongoing rash of murders without question.
At first glance, Killers of the Flower Moon, which he and Eric Roth adapted for the screen from David Grann's book, might seem like an odd project for Martin Scorsese. After all, most audiences associate him with urban grit in such films as Goodfellas or The Departed, rather than the Midwestern plains. Yet all the usual Scorsese tropes appear here: greed, organized crime, extreme violence, a rebel, and a study of how men and women relate to one another. The director’s 2002 epic Gangs of New York correlates the closest to Killers of the Flower Moon. Both concern little-discussed, violent episodes of American history fueled by greed and racism. In Gangs, Scorsese used his characters and a historical footnote as a metaphor for New York City: a metropolis born of conflict and corruption.
In Flower Moon, he uses the Osage Murders to encapsulate the history of America: how white robber barons invaded Native American land to deprive them of their wealth, and how those same villains concealed their misdeeds from well-meaning white folk via racism and veneers of respectability. And, like every great Scorsese film, Killers of the Flower Moon features an iconoclastic protagonist—in this case, Mollie Burkhart. Scorsese has endured some hot criticism in certain circles, with critics accusing him of misogyny or, at the very least, neglecting women in his films. Those detractors miss the point. Scorsese doesn’t tell stories about men so much as make movies about a world dominated by men, worlds in which intelligent women work to upend that social order. How else to explain why the women in his movies—Sharon Stone in Casino, Lorraine Brocco in Goodfellas, Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear—not only emerge as the most compelling characters in their respective films, but also feature actresses giving their movies’ standout performances? The men in these movies may not value their female contemporaries, but the audience does. Scorsese’s women see through social constructs and allow viewers the most astute perspectives.
Mollie Burkhart and Lily Gladstone follow that trend. Mollie sees her society collapsing around her, but shows more agency and efficacy in fighting injustice than any of her male counterparts. She’s also the film’s most complex character. Mollie loves Ernie, despite sensing his thirst for her money, and how easily Bill can manipulate him. She trusts his love, too, in part because he does love her, and, in part, because she’s a woman of a particular time. Gladstone captures that latter quality and exploits it all she can. The actress approaches her role with quiet sophistication, and though Mollie isn’t a glamorous character, Gladstone still manages to make her beautiful, even seductive, through her stillness. Audiences see her thinking, especially as she questions her husband’s loyalty. When a plot development leaves Mollie sidelined through most of the second act, Killers loses some momentum.
This, despite solid work from longtime Scorsese collaborators De Niro and DiCaprio. Here, the latter, with his grizzled voice, underbite, and weathered features, evokes Nick Nolte at his most dehydrated. De Niro, by contrast, embodies the most debonair devil to grace the screen since John Huston hobbled through Chinatown. But, in a sense, the massive bodies of work these two actors have amassed counters against them here; though effective, neither performance seems all that original. Likewise, Jesse Plemmons injects some energy into the proceedings as an FBI agent, though his character so resembles his role from The Power of the Dog, audiences may not realize how much the actor brings to it. Late-in-the-game appearances by Brendan Frasier and John Lithgow as blustering attorneys also liven the movie enough to carry it to the finish line, but nobody here equals Gladstone’s sense of mystique.
Footnote No More
Scorsese makes a wise decision with his cast: apart from the aforementioned six actors (three of which have limited screen time), the director relies on less-recognizable performers. Killers of the Flower Moon sports a huge cast, and the gnarled hands and leathery faces of non-star performers lend a high degree of verisimilitude to the story. Nobody here came out of Central Casting; rather, they look like they wandered in off the prairie. That credibility, along with spectacular production design by Jack Fisk, goes a long way to making Killers an absorbing movie. It also helps cushion viewer frustration with the film’s length. Three and a half hours asks a lot of the average moviegoer these days, and Scorsese shows his wisdom by offering them plenty of eye candy. (Keen viewers may also notice how the scores of indigenous faces seen at the beginning of the film give way to white children as it progresses.)
Criticizing Killers of the Flower Moon because it doesn’t qualify as an American masterpiece seems cruel—few directors ever make a true masterpiece. Judging the movie harshly because Scorsese, who has made at least five masterpieces in his career, directed it, also feels unfair. Yet Killers of the Flower Moon, for all its strength and beauty, will go down in history as an also-ran, relegated to second or third tier in the director’s filmography. And still, Scorsese has made a powerful and important film, a story built on subtext and rage against America’s penchant for forgetting its own heinous acts. Scorsese’s obituary may or may not mention Killers of the Flower Moon, though if nothing else, the film succeeds in accomplishing one thing:
At last, people will mention the Osage Murders.
RATING: 8.5/10 SPECS
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theatres on October 20. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
David Reddish is the award-winning novelist behind The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus and the Sex, Drugs & Superheroes series. He's also a noted entertainment journalist, having written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, MovieWeb, ScreenRant, Queerty, and Playboy.