Released on Oct. 20, “Killers of the Flower Moon”, directed by award-winning director Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the 2017 non-fiction book by The New Yorker reporter David Grann. The story centers around the Osage community of Oklahoma at the beginning of the 20th century after having struck oil. Despite an influx of wealth, the local white community socially and systematically stole and scammed the Osage people.
Upon the film’s release, many moviegoers rushed to the cinema to see what Scorsese had in store. However, it is noticeably different from Scorsese’s previous loud work. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is restrained while still keeping up with the usual fast-paced style of his past work.
“If you’re gonna make trouble, make it big,” says William Hale (played by Robert De Niro) to his nephew Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) once he arrives in Fairfax, Oklahoma after having been discharged from military service in the First World War. De Niro’s chilling character, who asks everyone to call him “King,” shares, in that very same conversation, his plan: Ernest will marry an Osage woman, and then they’ll execute a series of murders to ultimately inherit all of her oil money. To set their plan in motion, Ernest is tasked by his uncle with becoming the chauffeur of an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), and quickly asks for her hand in marriage. Their wedding seems to be a turning point, after which Mollie’s sister dies a natural death followed by the murder of many of their family members. Key people from the Osage Nation soon follow.
As the disappearances and murders of the Osage people go relatively unchecked, Mollie tries to hire a private investigator. He is beaten and chased from town by Ernest and Bill Burkhart, leading Mollie to travel north to ask for help from the President and other government officials. Sent by the newly created FBI, Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons) arrives in town and becomes increasingly suspicious of King Hale and his relatives.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is three hours and 43 minutes long, and I don’t say this lightly: each second is worth it. Thanks to the work of editor Thelma Schoonmaker and director Martin Scorsese, the pace of the movie is swift, catching the audience in a web of duty, fear, and instability around Ernest Burkhart. We feel manipulated by De Niro’s King, who controls and convinces people to murder with ease as if he is just making small talk. But more importantly, we never seem to see Burkhart and Hale actively devising a big plan with multiple layers; each killing is, for both characters, more of an upcoming to-do rather than anything else. This movie fits into the clear theme across Scorsese’s work: the stories of corrupt and violent men and those around them. The score is effective in creating a tense environment but also adds an extra layer to emotional scenes.
Mollie’s character, although shown to be vulnerable and honest, does not share a lot of her thoughts. This varies throughout the representation of the Osage community, but they are depicted as more withdrawn next to Burkhart’s rash, outspoken white relatives. This is highlighted by the jaw-dropping performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, both playing starkly different characters; DiCaprio embodies Ernest with strong emotions, and quite literally has downturned lips plastered across his face the whole movie, with a gut-wrenching representation of loss. Opposing him, Gladstone’s restrained acting gives strength and stature to her character. Although the audience sees how sick Mollie is, the question of her moral strength is never questioned.
BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD
One of the main themes in the movie is love, notably the marriage of two individuals, who, despite many cultural differences, choose to love each other. However, by the end of the movie not only does Ernest become an accessory to the murders of both Mollie’s younger sister (and her husband), but also her ex-husband. The scary part? We never question Ernest’s love for Mollie, not even when he listens to his uncle and starts actively poisoning her insulin that he administers daily. While committing such acts, he keeps repeating — as if out of reflex — “No one is gonna hurt you when I’m around.” It was absolutely bone-chilling to realize that while watching these actions the audience is still led to believe that DiCaprio’s character loved his wife in some naive way. He just feels forced to do these actions because of his uncle, making him more of a coward than an antagonist, or perhaps both.
The ending scene shifts the tone of the movie, turning into an old radio show that recounts the story through the perspective of the FBI and their agents as “saviors,” brave enough to take down the Killers of the Flower Moon. However, they report that both Burkhart and Hale were released after a few years and lived the rest of their lives as free men. Leading up to the pinnacle of the movie, a cameo by the director himself, Martin Scorsese, reading out Mollie Kyle’s obituary brings the focus back to the actual importance of this story: the Osage nation and the victims that suffered because of the killers.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is not only a must-see but will most likely be one of the most important book-to-film adaptations. It not only addresses the importance of knowing the history of the Osage People but also calls out true crime culture today in Hollywood for dehumanizing victims and their loved ones’ pain. It looks at victims with the respect they deserve while not losing the sense of urgency that they feel. “This blanket is a target on our backs,” says Rita, Mollie’s younger sister, in the second act of the movie.
As the audience, over the long epic that is “Killer of the Flower Moon”, we empathize with the Osage people, we fear for them, and eventually we mourn with them.