'Killers of the Flower Moon': Murder, deceit and genocide

October 30, 2023
Killers of the Flower Moon
Still from 'Killers of the Flower Moon'. Image: Supplied

Killers of the Flower Moon
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Apple Studios, 2023
In cinemas

Killers of the Flower Moon is the latest film from renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese. It is a somber and harrowing tale of murder, deceit and genocide of Indigenous people in North America.

The film is based on the 2017 book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI which details a series of murders committed against members of the Osage Nation in the early 1920s.

The Osage Nation is a Native American tribe that originated in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in mid-western North America. In the 19th Century the Osage were relocated by the United States government to a reservation in modern day Oklahoma.

Oil was later discovered on Osage land, making them “the richest people per capita in the world” as they retained “headrights” (communal mineral rights).

However this also made them the target of exploitation as white Americans and the US government sought to take control of the valuable oil-rich lands through murder, manipulation and brutality.

The film follows the perpetrators of the Osage Murders, including Ernest Burkhart — played brilliantly by Scorsese’s regular collaborator Leonardo Dicaprio. Returning from World War I, Ernest moves to Osage County to work for his uncle William Hale, who is known as “The King of Osage County”.

William, played by another long-time Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro, is cunning and brutal, but he puts on a charming persona as a kind and charitable man, embedding himself with the Osage by funding community infrastructure and other projects.

Ernest is almost immediately brought into his uncle’s plan to rob the Osage of their wealth by marrying Ernest to Mollie, an Osage woman, and plotting to capture her family’s headrights.

Mollie is magnificently portrayed by Lily Gladstone and her performance as a self-assured, humorous and loving woman is the emotional heart of the film and a true highlight. Gladstone’s haunting portrayal of Mollie’s grief, sickness and steadfast determination to find the truth will stick with viewers.

Ernest and Mollie’s marriage is central to the film, beginning with a genuine chemistry and spark that is undermined by Ernest’s involvement in her family’s murders.

Ernest and his uncle want to ensure that Mollie’s family’s headrights go to her, and by extension Ernest, so they begin a horrifying plot to murder Mollie’s sisters, their partners and anyone else who threatens their claim to the wealth.

Mollie, her sisters and the other Osage women are well aware that the white men around them are pursuing their wealth. Mollie reads Ernest almost immediately: “Coyote wants money,” she tells her sisters with a smirk.

Despite this, she still seems to genuinely fall for Ernest, and she does not display any suspicion towards him once he starts killing her family members.

Mollie also suffers from diabetes and seeks out treatment. Unbeknownst to her, Ernest begins adding poison to her daily insulin dosage to “keep her quiet”.

Unlike some of Scorsese’s earlier work, Killers is a serious and somber affair, more akin to his recent films like The Irishman and Silence than the rapid, high energy atmosphere of Goodfellas or the intensity of Raging Bull.

The story is told from the perspective of Ernest and his co-conspirators, making the audience complicit in his horrific actions. Like Christopher Nolan’s recent film Oppenheimer, which depicts J Robert Oppenheimer developing nuclear weapons, audiences have to grapple with the fact that our protagonists, and us by extension, are the villains of the piece.

This is signaled early in the film with the line: “Can you find the wolves in this picture?”

It is not just Ernest and William who are guilty of these crimes. Viewers quickly come to realise that every facet of this society, from doctors and lawyers, to bankers and judges, are complicit.

The film suggests that the Osage Murders were not just the plots of a few evil men, but the logical next step for a society built on the stolen wealth, dispossesion, exploitation and genocide.

It is complex territory for a white American director to tell a story about Indigenous people. Osage man Joel Robinson wrote in Slate that he had “conflicting thoughts” when he found out the film was being made. “On one hand, this was an opportunity for us to have our history told like never before. On the other, it was being done by an outsider who hadn’t grown up with it like we had.”

Robinson wrote about a conversation with Jim Gray, a former chief of the Osage Nation, who said “he’s never seen a film immerse itself in a culture like this one did with ours”.

Conversely, Indigenous actor Devery Jacobs wrote on X that the film was dehumanising and that the Osage characters were “underwritten”. “Imagine the worst atrocities committed against [your] ancestors, then having to sit [through] a movie explicitly filled with them,” she said.

“All the incredible Indigenous actors were the only redeeming factors of this film … I don’t feel that these very real [Indigenous] people were shown honour or dignity in the horrific portrayal of their deaths.”

Chritopher Cote, one of the Osage language consultants that Scorsese worked with throughout the film's production shared his thoughts about the film after the premiere, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that.

“I think in the end, the question that you can be left with is: How long will you be complacent with racism? How long will you go along with something and not say something, not speak up, how long will you be complacent?

“I think that’s because this film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage,” said Cote.

Scorsese said he and co-writer Eric Roth scaled back Mollie’s role in the film because they didn’t want to “put words in [her] mouth”.

The film's unconventional ending reveals that Scorsese himself was conflicted about his own role in telling this story. The role of storyteller, subject and audience in depicting brutal realities is examined.

Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon is an incredibly well crafted and thought out film that carefully, although not perfectly, handles a sensitive and horrific subject.

The film has not resolved the question of how to ethically depict horrifying realities on screen, or whether it should even be attempted, but the views of Osage and other Indigenous people are worth listening to.

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