Killers of the Flower Moon is a superbly performed descent into a nightmarish chapter in the history of American capitalism. Based on David Grann’s true-crime bestseller of the same name, the film is about a brazen and audacious conspiracy by opportunistic White people to rob and murder the Osage people. The film is set in 1920s Oklahoma, where years earlier, the tribe is forced to relocate after relinquishing their homelands. As it turns out, the ground has oil and overnight, the Osage become the richest people, per capita, in the world. Which also marks them for massacre. This is a story of greed, corruption and horrific exploitation.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a World War 1 veteran who comes to Fairfax, where his uncle William ‘King’ Hale, a well-connected cattleman played by Robert De Niro, runs the town. King encourages Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family is dying out at an alarming rate. One sister is found with a bullet in the back of her head. Another is blown up. Of course, Ernest stands to gain from these deaths – all the wealth in Mollie’s family will be bequeathed to him. Ernest becomes Hale’s stooge, staging, conspiring and even poisoning. He isn’t smart enough to scheme but he’s a willing participant. And yet, Ernest also has a sliver of decency, which allows him to truly care about Mollie. Eventually, Ernest must decide between Hale and Mollie.
In the book, Grann tells this story as a criminal investigation. But Martin Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth rework the material from the criminals’ perspective. The film also shows us how the system is stacked against the Osage. There is a blatantly racist guardianship scheme which certifies the Natives incompetent and white men are assigned to administer their trust funds. Even when the bodies pile up, the local authorities seem unconcerned. When the Osage send an emissary to Washington or Mollie hires a private detective, they are simply bumped off. Despite their wealth, the Osage have little power.
Hale believes that Natives are simply collateral damage in the quest for a greater good – De Niro (this is his 10th collaboration with Scorsese) plays him with a sickly, sweet charm. Hale is constantly proclaiming that he is a friend of the Osage while continuing to have them killed. But the heart of this story is the love story between Ernest and Mollie. DiCaprio, wearing false teeth, delivers a career-defining performance as the scumbag Ernest. And Gladstone radiates intelligence and quiet strength as Mollie. Her eyes betray how much she truly understands her limited circumstances.
Killers of the Flower Moon has stunning visuals and passages of poetry – there is a jaw-dropping sequence in which a farm is set on fire. This film is a study of America’s toxic past, systemic racism and murder-fueled capitalism but it is also a moving portrait of a marriage which poisons, literally. There is so much to soak in here but I’m not convinced that the duration, a punishing three-and-a-half hours, serves the film. The woman sitting next to me at the screening fell asleep. And Killers of the Flower Moon is too strong a film for that.