Following displacement, the native American Osage bought their own reservation, retaining mineral rights to the bare acres of Oklahoma land they made their settlement. Oil would be discovered in 1897, and soon enough a white encroachment began. Given headrights to a percentage of the profit gleaned from their land, holders become fabulously wealthy, and since those headrights can be passed to non-Osage as an inheritance, a lot of white men start marrying into the community, while conmen and shirkers people the town of Fairfax, where Killers of the Flower Moon begins.
Before long, women begin to die. Then any prospective inheritors. We know for a fact of 24 murders. Hundreds more are presumed. If you’re familiar with Killers’ source novel, you’ll know the belated efforts of an early FBI could be taken as the crux of that narrative, and that would have been a great and urgent story to tell, especially in the hands of the prodigious Martin Scorsese, whose love affair with the mythos of the white-hat western runs long and deep. Instead, he lances one of history’s clandestine genocides from a different angle, one firmly in the director’s wheelhouse (borne through the Catholic sensibilities of guilt, sin and confession).
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from service looking for opportunity under the thumb of his opportunist uncle, the wealthy rancher Bill Hale (Robert De Niro on vile form as the self-anointed King of the Osage Hills), who masks monstrosity in smiles and affability as a virtuous community man with an abiding respect for his Osage countrymen. Hale, who in fact is self-righteous, calculating and black-hearted, obliquely communicates what would be “best” to Ernest, who becomes progressively involved in what the baron sees as cutting out the middleman. At first, ‘King’ only encourages his nephew’s romantic interest in Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone).
DiCaprio unsettles as the emotionally and intellectually stunted Ernest, averse to judgement on a personal level, his anxieties bottled in a frightened schoolboy’s slouch or contorted through the lips into a low pout. Still, Mollie takes a liking to him and in time the two are married. Much has been made of Lily Gladstone, that she is the heart of the film, brilliantly controlled, knowing, pained, and all in the eyes. What you’ve heard is true.
The story of the Osage murders, the vastness in what their barefaced evil can be seen to reflect, is unwieldly (considering the conspirators stood some hundred-strong, “it couldn’t be a whodunnit, because who didn’t do it?”). Scorsese traverses that immense scale with the assuredness he has wielded to précis elaborate lives in the past, but in his age continues to hold fast to the elusive personality. Ernest is unrelentingly spineless, but his character is essentially shadowy. How could he have been capable of such inhumanity? To hold someone through the suffering you know you’ve brought upon them? Of any Scorsese character, Ernest may have the greatest cause to fear for his immortal soul.
The latter-day-Scorsese is attracted more to a lost monster than an assured one, as though he feels these banal followers are closer to the truth of criminality he’s investigated time and again across his career. There are the likes of Bill Hale, Frank Costello and William Poole in the world, but mostly there those who emulate Ernest Burkhardt. Take the complicity we see white supremacy pervade everyday life through; Mollie must negotiate the spending of her own money with a state-appointed white guardian, who ‘gently advices’ her a few feet from his framed poster of The Birth of a Nation. The Klan are a fixture of the town’s parade, greeted offhandedly by local men who are themselves married to Osage women. A newsreel brings footage of the Tulsa massacre. Hale attends that screening, unmoved.
Several violent deaths are presented as matter of fact as well, and the distance is unnerving. Scorsese may be an octogenarian but there’s bite in the approach all the way to his daring epilogue, and life in the filmmaking to rival any of his enshrined classics. Procedure and more poetic sequences come together superbly; a standout involves shimmering flames and silhouettes as seen by sickly, sweat-drenched brows from inside a dark room, played to the mournful strumming of ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground’.
If you want the investigation, an inside chronicle of the events, it is here, but you should read David Grann’s book. If you want a fictionalized account and one with a native perspective, read Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit. If you want the truth of the insatiable American sin, how it festers in malice and casual conspiracy alike, there is no greater filmmaker alive.