Killers of the Flower Moon
“In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma. There are Johnny-jump-ups and spring beauties and little bluets. The Osage writer John Joseph Mathews observed that the galaxy of petals makes it look as if the ‘gods had left confetti.’ In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground. This is why the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.”
- David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI)
Like many in the tribe, Mollie Kyle (Mollie Burkhart later), a Native American woman from the Osage tribe, finds herself unexpectedly wealthy due to the discovery of vast oil reserves on their seemingly barren land in Oklahoma. The Osage tribe had moved from Missouri to Arkansas to Kansas and finally to this famine stricken land in Oklahoma in the 1920s because the authorities thought no one one would want this land. But their newfound wealth comes at a price — the Osage people are subjected to racist “guardianship” conditions, requiring a white co-signatory to access and manage their income. As if this injustice wasn’t enough, what they assume to be mysterious illnesses start plaguing the tribe, claiming the lives of its members one by one. When they realize that these are murders targeting the members of the tribe, including Mollie’s sister Anna, and when bodies of these murder victims are found, the Osage community leaders decide they need to demand an investigation.
Enter Ernest, an easily manipulable and morally bankrupt individual played brilliantly by Leonardo DiCaprio. Fresh from his service in World War I, Ernest returns to the US and becomes entangled with the conniving cattleman-plutocrat William Hale, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Hale, who takes pride in his supposed good relations with the Osage people, hires Ernest as his underling and encourages him to woo Mollie. This marriage, doomed from the start, becomes even more complicated by Mollie’s fears for her ailing mother and her deteriorating health. As the federal authorities can no longer ignore the escalating situation, Tom White from the fledgling Bureau of Investigations (which later would become FBI) is sent to Oklahoma, revealing the political motives behind the bureau’s involvement.
The chemistry between Mollie and Ernest, portrayed by Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio respectively, is characterized by a pervasive sense of spiritual sickness. There is love. And there is deceit. There is earnestness. And there is suspicion. Yet, amid this web of deceit and violence, Ernest’s true loyalty lies with Hale, his uncle, highlighting their toxic relationship. Strangely, DiCaprio begins to resemble De Niro, exhibiting the same fearful hostility and downcast mouth. Hale’s influence doesn’t stop at their personal connection — he is deeply involved in the Masonic society, subjecting Ernest to a disturbing corporal punishment in one scene, when Ernest disappoints his uncle terribly.
Despite Hale’s facade of care and compassion for the Osage people, his rule plunges the community into a vortex of depression, alcoholism, lawlessness, fatal illness, and murder. Mollie, portrayed flawlessly by Gladstone, carries a sense of self-blame for collaborating with her tormentor. However, she maintains her dignity and rises above the squalor surrounding her, even amidst her own declining health due to diabetes. Yet, she can’t deny that Ernest was never truly good, but she lets his charms and seduction blind her somewhat willingly.
Within the world of Osage territory’s white residents, a culture of corruption and complicity thrives. Ill-gotten wealth and undue power corrupt everyone in this gangland-like community. Even seemingly insignificant characters like John Ramsey, cannot escape their involvement in the wrongdoing. But beneath it all, racism silently permeates the societal order, fueling the darkest deeds.
Unveiling the horrifying depths of greed and murder, this film exposes the underbelly of American history. Brace yourself for ‘an uncomfortable’ cinematic experience that sheds light on the destructive power of a supremacist group and racism in a forgotten chapter that formed the foundation of our nation’s past.
In the gripping courtroom sequence towards the end of this very long movie (3 hours and 26 minutes), Ernest is offered a chance. A chance to avow his misdeeds and help dismantle the corrupt system that bred them. But the true weight of the story lies in his confession to Mollie, where moral tension reaches unprecedented heights. Although Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio is so good) is our protagonist, it is Mollie who takes center stage, expertly portrayed by Lily Gladstone (who has Native American heritage) with a nuanced performance that breathes life into the narrative.
Director Scorsese skillfully positions Mollie at the heart of the film, delicately balancing her pivotal role in the unfolding drama while providing glimpses into her inner world. Yet, Scorsese doesn’t presume to reveal all of Mollie’s thoughts and emotions, instead, he captures her and the Osage community with a respectful distance. He is well aware of the fact that he is an outsider. So as an outsider witnessing their lives, Scorsese showcases the Osage tribe’s vibrant culture, sacred ceremonies, and the harsh realities they face with an honest and restrained perspective.
Scorsese also sheds light on the political landscape of the Osage Nation, highlighting their democratic values even in the face of exclusion. However, the film is ultimately a testament to Mollie, a heroic figure driven by principles and profound emotions. Scorsese adds another layer to this remarkable tale by employing a bold narrative device of a callous “true crime” radio show, where white actors portray Osage characters insensitively. This audacious choice only adds to the film’s absorbing nature, as Scorsese aims to uncover the hidden history of power and violence that contaminates humanity. This epic of a film serves as a glimpse into a secret history of American power, the deadly past, and how a hidden wave of violence continues to pollute humanity’s very foundations.
And, as if the story wasn’t remarkable enough, Scorsese himself makes a notable cameo appearance, having the last word and bringing history into light with a certain sense of personal guilt, however remote it may be.
Killers of the Flower Moon is Scorsese at his finest.
I already see the film hogging the award season honors.
PS: I finished reading this non-fiction book by David Grann in September, 2023. And since then I have been impatient to find out how Scorsese and Eric Roth would give a visual life to the book.
I am more than satisfied.