Martin Scorsese’s defence of his 3.5 hour-long epic Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t need to be justified. Unlike Once Upon A Time in Hollywood’s over-reliance on the sharp dialogue that worked so well in Tarantino’s earlier classics; Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, etc., the 80 year old Scorsese’s gaze is on the unjust colonial oppression and downright genocide the Osage Tribe suffered in the early 1920’s.
Backed by an all-star cast of usual Scorsese suspects, Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro, along with longtime friend – the late Robbie Robertson, who composed the films’ musical score, KotFM is as much a love story as it is a colonial period piece.
The Osage Indian Murders were heavily brought to the mainstream by David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI in 2017, with Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth’s (Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button, etc.) adaptation as close to the book’s account as possible (right up to the exact names). The Osage Tribe landed upon oil in Osage County, Oklahoma in 1897 and by 1923 the Osage Nation had in excess of USD$30M (USD$400M in 2023) making them “the richest nation, clan, or social group of any race on earth.”
Because the Osage people were entitled to Headrights (a quarterly share of the Osage Mineral Estate) this made them cannon fodder for greedy white elites, who stooped to inhumane levels to gain access to said Headrights. The result – a barbaric five year reign of terror that saw some-20 + Osage Indians massacred and forgotten about (very few were investigated properly), either directly or indirectly at the hands of Osage’s most powerful figurehead; William King Hale, the self-professed ‘King of the Hill.’
Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t shy away from showcasing De Niro (King Hale) and his dense nephew Di Caprio (Ernest Burkhart) as the callous killers they are, though there is a semblance of sympathy for Ernest – or at least confusion. Surely he can’t be that much of a dunce. Spoiler: He is! Then again, the same can be said for his long-suffering wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone) who knows the “coyote wants money” but still falls in love with him anyway.
For all her naivety, Mollie has a real beauty in the steely way she studies Ernest in the early days of their acquaintanceship, and even when seemingly on her last legs as a result of the poison Hale has been slipping into her insulin, there’s an admiration at how she conceals her reactions yet allows the viewer to feel her emotions by looking deeply into her eyes – and seeing her soul.
You want to cry for her but to show weakness in her very presence would be to underestimate the power of her Indigenous spirit – and indeed the influence Hollywood has of insisting on a happy ending. Or at least that’s the hope I had – even though deep down history shows us that very little justice was done until decades later.
Happier times for Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), Bill Hale (Robert DeNiro), & Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio)
The atrocities surrounding the Indigenous in North America have long been a source of angst – and while Killers of the Flower Moon will surely bring a mainstream spotlight to the injustices, it may be a case of too little, too late. There is no happy ending to this movie, nor to the Osage Nation, who have all been wiped out other than the 20,000 inhabitants currently recognized by the Federal Government.
For all the antagonists he’s played, I’ve only ever wanted to rip one of De Niro’s characters’ heads off once before – when his Louis Gara character killed Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) in Jackie Brown. That level of anger was matched in his evil ‘King of the Hill’ persona, whose evil intentions were exacerbated by the ease with which he was able to manipulate Ernest to carry out his deadly deeds. It was tough to feel sorry for Ernest toward the end of the film; who was just as annoyingly inept as he was lovingly devoted to his ailing wife Mollie. His desire to keep her alive despite Hale’s best efforts was admirable albeit counterproductive to her health because of the tainted medicine he was force-feeding her.
Make no mistake about it, the love between Ernest and Mollie is very real, the evidence glaringly obvious when Mollie forgives Ernest, despite her entire family being butchered at his very hands. That’s the true mark of unrequited love! Mollie’s poise and inner peace letting Ernest go offers hope to the audience that forgiveness can be achieved, but there is a limit.
At 80, Martin Scorsese continues to impress – pictured (DeNiro, Jesse Plemons (centre) & Scorsese)
Did the introduction of cameo-style appearances from Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, and Pete Yorn come too late into the film? One could argue that, others may claim it as a nice surprise.
Could Scorsese and Jack White’s true-crime radio interlude at the end have been a theatrical-style intermission? Perhaps – but that may have taken away the emotional impact and empathy felt. Still, it felt slightly anticlimactic, which highlights the edge-of-your-seat power the cinematography provides throughout.
Scorsese, the Italian maestro, continues to churn out meaningful cultural and historical representations and his risk is our reward as Killers of the Flower Moon will surely be this Fall’s filmic highlight – and at the very least bring the atrocities of the Osage Nation to light – as well as making a star out of Lily Gladstone.
At three and a half hours, Martin Scorsese was unsure if KotFM was too long. Truth be told, it wasn’t long enough.
Killers of the Flower Moon is currently in theatres nationwide and is set for release on Apple TV in early 2024.