Making a Killing in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Where to begin regarding Killers of the Flower Moon?  It’s another awesome collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.  As well as another for Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio.  This is the first film to have all three together.  Although De Niro and Dicaprio have joined forces before on This Boy’s Life, a pretty high quality, intense coming-of-age story from 1993.  De Niro had a hand in casting Dicaprio for that movie, helping get the young star’s career off the ground.  This was roughly around the time of his Oscar-nominated performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

This is Scorsese’s 27th motion picture, not counting his documentaries.  And at 80, he’s hotter than ever.

Killers of the Flower Moon is something of an epic.  I’m not sure if I would call it a Western.  To me it’s more of a crime thriller, with a familiar cast of dirty, immoral characters that typically populate a Scorsese picture.  Instead of the inner cities of New York or Boston however, we’re in rural Oklahoma during the 1920s.

Leonardo Dicaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a war veteran returning home and looking for work from his Uncle, William Hale, played by Robert De Niro.  Thanks mainly to oil, this is a very rich, prosperous time for the local Native American tribe the Osage.  They wear expensive jewelry and drive fancy cars because all that in-demand ‘black gold’ is technically theirs to profit from.

William Hale (Robert De Niro) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo Dicaprio)

Early on William Hale, an all-powerful figure, seems like a decent character.  He speaks the native tongue and appears to have harmonious relationships with the Osage.  It’s sort of an open secret that white men marry into the Native community in order to inherit their fortune.  This is not the case with Ernest however.  He meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage, after picking her up for a ride.  Early on, we believe that Ernest has real affections for Mollie and isn’t necessarily motivated by money or acquiring wealth.  You truly believe that he, along with Hale, have the Native Americans’ best interests in mind. 

Soon however, local Natives start showing up dead, with no clues as to who the murderer is.  In an effort to track down those responsible, the Osage send a representative to Washington D.C. to make a plea to the US government to help find those responsible.  They also hire a private detective.  But corruption and conspiracy loom large over all of this.  And Ernest finds himself wrapped up in a world of deceit, robbery and murder.

Flower Moon is 3 and a ½ hours long.  Coming in second to Scorsese’s longest feature, 2019’s The Irishman.  While I thought this would be a challenge to my movie experience, I did not actually tire or lose interest at any point.  That being said, I do believe this story could have been told in 2 hours.  

Ernest (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Mollie (Lily Gladstone)

As far as making a statement on the plight of Native Americans and their oppression and abuse at the hands of early settlers and the US government (big undertaking) I thought Scorsese came up short.  He remained preoccupied with the plot and the transgressions of his characters and not on the greater matter of the Osage’s struggles with colonization and assimilation and its repercussions. 

This is important because even today, the portrayal of Native Americans in media is overall lacking and when addressed feels stereotypical and two-dimensional.  Killers would have been an excellent opportunity to paint the Indigenous people in a new light but nothing in this film feels like it penetrates the identity of the Native person and his experience.  

That being said, there are certainly positive elements in Killers.  Lily Gladstone steals the show as Mollie.  Her face can appear emotionless but she conveys an intense gravity and presence that I feel will be rewarded with an Oscar nomination.  

The picture sheds some light on The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.  An historical event that, thanks in part to the Watchmen series, is getting more exposure in the mainstream today than it ever has before.  Additionally, the interracial marriage between Earnest and Mollie feels genuine.  In interviews with Scorsese, he explains that the relationship between these two characters provided a way into the story as well as the world that the characters inhabit.  Like an anchor that keeps the narrative together and consequential. 

The Osage waiting at a train station

Some of these characters are fairly deplorable and they do a lot of bad things.  But, at times they made me laugh slightly probably due to their incompetence and perhaps due to their somewhat shockingly authentic nature.  Scorsese likes exploring human beings who are susceptible to violence and the influence of vast sums of money.  And which side of the law that these characters fall on.  At times he takes it to comical extremes.  As if he’s testing the audience, or painting a deliberately unclear picture that can at times be uncomfortable and surprisingly revealing. I’m thinking of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street particularly.  

It’s not necessarily a lack of education, insight or element of empathy I have trouble with. It just feels like something was not tackled or perhaps not conveyed effectively in Killers with regards to its depiction of Native Americans, their violent history, and unforgivable treatment by white men.  Even though the whole movie centers on the mistreatment of Natives.  I may be in the small camp of detractors with this opinion, but this was my experience.  

Additionally, some emphasis on the fact this is based on actual events would have probably made the movie more impactful, and left me more emotionally affected by the story.  

The real Ernest and Molly Burkhart

It was interesting being in a theater for this movie.  Because there were some odd reactions.  Bursts of laughter at times.  Stone cold silence at others.  I recommend the film.  Good motion pictures, like any art-form, allow for my opinion to change over time.