Martin Scorsese has long been interested in crime, America, and the intersections of greed, entitlement, and the American dream. In David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon he has a perfect subject, the conspiracy of the Osage Murders that occurred in Oklahoma in the early 20th century, which resulted in not only the deaths of hundreds of members of the Osage Nation, but also in the systematic transfer of “headrights”, the controlling interest in oil found under Osage land in Oklahoma, from Osage to white colonizers.
It’s a perfect storm of Scorsesian interests, the crime, the conspiracy, the greed, the rampant and ugly conniving and backstabbing of the conspirators, and the fraught and fraudulent American dream—and who gets to enjoy its fruits. But it is also a story of Indigenous suffering, and while Scorsese unquestionably approaches the story of the Osage with sensitivity, ultimately Flower Moon is a somewhat uneven affair, an outsider’s perspective that never quite finds the interiority of his Osage subjects.
The film opens after the conclusion of World War I, as Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns home. He served as a cook in the Army, and looking for work, turns to his wealthy cattle rancher uncle, “King” William Hale (Robert De Niro). Hale owns a vast cattle empire, but he is surrounded by the petrol-soaked oil fields of Osage Nation, where the “bad land” initially sold to the Osage to be their reservation turned out to be bursting with that precious black gold, discovered just as the machine age is taking off with the mass production of automobiles and other combustion engine machines. Hale understands what he’s built with cows is temporary compared to the generational wealth represented by oil, and though he is a rich man, he covets what his neighbors have—by 1920, the Osage are estimated to be the wealthiest people per capita in the world.
The tragedy is clear from the beginning. Scorsese, adapting Grann’s book with Eric Roth, makes no attempt to play coy about Hale’s intention or what he is doing, encouraging white men like his nephew to marry Osage women, kill those women, and take their headrights through inheritance. It’s evil, and De Niro gives one of his best-ever performances, the avuncular presentation of Hale always at odds with the sneering countenance De Niro dons throughout the film. Yet Ernest, who puffs himself up and promises he won’t make mistakes, is definitely an idiot and a fool who is going to screw this all up somehow. DiCaprio perfectly captures Ernests’s particular brand of foolishness, a love of alcohol and women and finery outweighing whatever sense he may possess.
Wisely, Scorsese never tries to show Hale and Ernest—or any of the men involved in this scheme—as anything other than rat bastards. When Ernest sets his sights on Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone, a revelation to anyone who has not already experienced her wonderful performances), we feel only sadness, as the end is written in the beginning. Ernest may fool himself into believing he didn’t single Mollie out because his uncle told him to, but, well. We know better. The dramatic irony of Flower Moon is high, as we are privy to the history the film is unfolding, we know how it ends, and as the first flirtatious glances are exchanged between Mollie and Ernest, we feel only a horror movie kick of don’t go in there!
This is helped along by Robbie Robertson’s grungy, country-bluesy score infused with Native rhythms. Robertson, who was of Cayuga and Mohawk descent, was a long-time collaborator of Scorsese’s and this is a masterwork from the Canadian musician and, sadly, his final score following his death earlier in 2023. The music of Flower Moon slides between the haunting and elegiac and blood-pumping percussion, never overpowering the images or performances but always underscoring the mood and the ever-present darkness swimming beneath the surface of Osage County, Oklahoma.
Indeed, Flower Moon is a high point for many of Scorsese’s favored collaborators, including longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto—who also lensed Barbie this year, that man is doing the most—and actors De Niro and DiCaprio, both of whom give top tier performances. And you can feel Scorsese firing on all cylinders; though the film is long, it is packed with essential details, whether it is the many petty scams the Osage are subjected to at every step and stage of their lives, or the traditional wedding or death rites of the Osage. Scorsese also makes room for uneasy juxtapositions, such as Hale insisting the “Osage time is over”, even as archival footage shows Osage participating in sports, parties, flying lessons, and all manner of modern activities. This is a vital, thriving community, but “their time is over” because William Hale wants what they have.
Flower Moon is at its best where Scorsese is most comfortable—the intersection of crime and the American dream. He flawlessly renders the moral decay at the heart of a man like William Hale, who represents both the bootstrap idealism of the American dream and its brutal reality, which is that so much of (white) American wealth is built upon Indigenous exploitation and suffering. He also captures the dogmatic persistence of Tom White (Jesse Plemons), the newly minted federal investigator sent to look into the string of murders reported by the Osage Nation to the federal government. The cat and mouse scenes between Tom and Ernest are quite funny, as Ernest thinks he’s being smart, but Tom has him filleted and cooked for dinner before Ernest even realizes it.
Where Scorsese fumbles, though, is in the telling of the Osage story. Lily Gladstone is immaculate as Mollie, and a number of Native actors are notable in smaller roles, including Tantoo Cardinal, Tatanka Means, William Belleau, and Cara Jade Myers. But at the end of the day, this is a three-and-a-half-hour film and Mollie disappears for half of it, and very few of the Osage victims are afforded meaningful screentime to honor their lives and spirits before they are gone. For the most part, the Osage characters exist to suffer and die, often in graphic, gutting detail. It is effective for the crime drama part of the film, but though Scorsese later turns a critical eye on the true crime genre, he doesn’t seem to see how his own storytelling falls short of centering the victims in their own narrative. Flower Moon is very much the story of William Hale and Ernest Burkhart, with Mollie Kyle Burkhart serving as a secondary character to their story, not the protagonist of her own.
Which is what Scorsese does, he tells stories about men doing ugly things in the name of success and achievement, and Flower Moon is very much part of his canon of American crime dramas. He does make an effort to show the richness and vitality of Osage life, but that is not the same thing as centering victims in their own narratives. This is a crime story told from the perspective of the criminals, and it’s a testament of the power of Lily Gladstone that Mollie pulls as much focus as she does, whenever she is on screen. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the approach, except for how there is no “Native Scorsese” to tell a different version of this story, because Native filmmakers have never been afforded the resources or opportunities Martin Scorsese has. Still, Killers of the Flower Moon is, for such a dramatic and dark film, wildly entertaining throughout its epic runtime. It just leaves a door cracked open for this story to be revisited by Native filmmakers, to someday be told from the Osage perspective.
This review was published during the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of actors. Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing exclusively in theaters.