Killers of the Flower Moon Is the Slipperiest of Things

It’s not Martin Scorsese’s western, and it’s not another gangster epic. It’s his marriage story.
Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon

The early scenes of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon are a symphony of pointed dissonance. The director revels in the frantic bustle of the Oklahoma boomtown of Fairfax where most of the film is set — a world of fast, shiny cars; hollering cowboys; and seemingly endless oil fields. World War I has recently ended, and the turn-of-the-century discovery of black gold in this region, to which the Osage were moved from their ancestral homes along the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, has unexpectedly created immense wealth, making the Osage “the richest people per capita on earth.” But the new money has also led to a series of unsolved murders, and Scorsese grimly interrupts the action at regular intervals to show the faces, and say the names, of the Native American dead. It’s a somber historical accounting, but it also happens to be a familiar western movie trope: One is reminded of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica hauntingly reciting the many victims of Henry Fonda’s aspiring-capitalist gunslinger Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

It would be tempting to say that Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese’s attempt at a western, and in some of its sweeping vistas, particularly early on, you can sense him luxuriating in the open spaces and lawless frenzy of this world. The story would obviously also lend itself to yet another gangster epic from a man who’s made his share of them. But in adapting David Grann’s acclaimed 2017 nonfiction history, whose subtitle is The Osage Murders and the Rise of the FBI, Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth have shifted the scope of the story, pulling the timeline further back to show the growing relationship between Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone), a member of a large and wealthy Osage family, and Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), a WWI veteran who arrives in town to work for his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a local godfather type. For all its extravagant running time (three hours and 26 minutes!), its big-swing history lessons, and its tale of an Old West giving way to the regimentation of a modern police force, Killers of the Flower Moon turns out to be that simplest and slipperiest of things: the story of a marriage. And a twisted, tragic one at that.

Ernest’s growing relationship with Mollie is at first an extension of his bond with “King” Hale, who takes a great interest in his nephew’s prospects for marriage. (“You like women?” “Sure.” “You like Red?” “Don’t matter to me. I’m greedy.”) Hale and the people around him have taken advantage of the restrictive laws governing Native American wealth. Full-blooded Osage do not actually control their own money; they are declared officially incompetent, and require white guardians to oversee their riches. Quickly, and almost imperceptibly, the impressionable and weak-minded Ernest is coaxed into Hale’s running, murderous plot to accrue even more Osage wealth.

The first half of Grann’s book is structured as something of a mystery. But Scorsese mostly does away with all that, backloading the second half of his film with the investigation by Bureau agent Thomas White (Jesse Plemons), long after we already know the contours of the crime. What was a revelation in the book is here treated in matter-of-fact fashion early on as a casual, quiet, gathering conspiracy. It’s fueled by greed, but also by the notion that the people being killed, robbed, and exploited — the Osage families living in fear of this slow-rolling crime wave (referred to at the time as “the reign of terror”)  — aren’t really people at all. The most uncomfortable aspect of Killers of the Flower Moon is not the spectacular criminality on display, but rather how it’s treated by so many of the characters as no big deal.

These are typically Scorsesean ideas: our offhand capacity for evil, the inherent violence of relationships, the strain of serving two masters. Ernest doesn’t have a spine, or even much of an identity. He’s defined by his malleability — which can become wearying over the course of nearly four hours, especially as the film moves toward a stripped-down, minor-key austerity in its later scenes. DiCaprio is a fine actor, but he needs space to maneuver. He’s at his best when he can go big. Here, his character shrinks the more he’s onscreen, and the actor sometimes feels lost. De Niro, by contrast, has a grand old time as the smooth-talking Hale, imparting his ghastly plans with avuncular chumminess, as if they were bits of folksy wisdom. It’s a return to the quiet menace of some of his classic characters.

In so many ways, though, this is Lily Gladstone’s movie. She plays Mollie with a mix of standoffishness and exhausted hope. She can tell early on that Ernest is out for her money. So is every white man around her. But she comes to see charm and slivers of decency in him, too. As the horrors mount around her, Mollie navigates her queasy, gathering suspicions as well as her affection for her husband. Ernest is … well, he’s earnest. When he tells Mollie he loves her, she believes him. And so do we.

That is, in many ways, the great, cruel, unreconciled tragedy at the heart of this tale. It also perhaps explains Scorsese’s decision in the later scenes to go in a heartbreakingly intimate direction. As Ernest continues to ping-pong between his loyalties to Hale and Mollie, seemingly too weak and too plain to find anything resembling a moral backbone, we feel like we’re watching someone slowly being tortured to death by his own inadequacy. Maybe that’s also why the story never really achieves closure, or anything resembling redemption. By the time Scorsese himself comes onscreen to deliver the picture’s final lines — in an incredibly moving cameo, placing himself alongside the showmen and sensationalists who’ve told the story of the Osage murders over the decades — we may actually find ourselves surprised that the movie is over. It feels like an open wound right up to the end.

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