Killers of the Flower Moon Review: An Epic As Beautiful As it is Frustrating

Director Martin Scorsese, this epic drama is about a bloodsoaked chapter in modern American history and features standout performances by Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro.
Killers of the Flower Moon Review: An Epic As Beautiful As it is Frustrating
Killers of the Flower Moon Review: An Epic As Beautiful As it is Frustrating

Director: Martin Scorsese

Writers: Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese

Cast: Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio

Duration: 206 mins

Available in: Theatres

Four sisters lounge on a blanket. One of them, Anna (Cara Jade Myers), is lying on her stomach, radiating an irreverent confidence. The other three sit more demurely, their colourful blankets wrapped around them as a proud statement of their Osage identity. European-style fans in their hands indicate there are elements of the white man’s culture that the women have allowed into their world. One of them looks exhausted and pale. Another is almost hidden by her expensive hat. And then there’s Mollie (Lily Gladstone), she of the Mona Lisa smile. The four sisters cackle with laughter as they discuss the white men buzzing around them in hope of catching these rich Osage women’s attention. Mollie says she likes the blue-eyed newcomer Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has been her eager chauffeur ever since he came to their town. He’s got his eyes on Mollie’s money, warns one sister. “Of course he wants money,” says Mollie matter-of-factly. She’s no naive pushover. The Osage people know how the white men covet their wealth and Mollie is well aware of what a catch she and her sisters are because of the land they own. Still, she’s drawn to Ernest and her voice softens when she adds, hopefully, “But he wants to be settled.”

Technically, this scene fails the Bechdel Test, which requires two or more women to have a conversation about something other than a man. Yet, even though it’s made up of a conversation about men, this scene quickly gives the viewer an understanding of not just the social dynamics of Oklahoma in the 1920s, but also what these particular women are like. Anna’s the brash one, Minnie’s reduced to anxiety, Reta is a shadow of Minnie and Mollie is quietly stubborn, which is a trait that pushes her first to downfall before ultimately saving her. This is also one of the few scenes in Killers of the Flower Moon that shows the Osage as people, rather than as either targets or victims of racial violence.

Rooted in History

Set in the 1920s, Killers of the Flower Moon is about a dark period of modern American history when the Osage Indians discovered oil on their land and became the richest people per capita in the world. Soon after, the Osage were killed, manipulated and swindled by white Americans. Early in the film, the tribe is described as “the chosen people of chance” and this seems like less of a blessing and more a curse upon the Osage. Their women — offensively called “blankets” because traditional Osage attire included beautifully-patterned blankets — were wooed by white men who wanted rights to the oil rich lands and cattle ranches on Osage territory. Their men were pushed towards alcoholism and ill health. Many were murdered.

Soon after that moment of sisterhood in Killers of the Flower Moon, two of Mollie’s sisters and her mother die under mysterious circumstances. Unable to get the local police to investigate these cases, Mollie tries to hire a private investigator and even moves the tribal council to send an emissary to Washington’s office of Indian affairs. When agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually land up in Mollie’s town — one can’t help but feel amused that DiCaprio’s Ernest fears being probed by the agency led by J. Edgar Hoover, whom DiCaprio played in J.Edgar (2011) — Mollie’s situation becomes more precarious than ever as the guilty work feverishly to cover up their crimes. This Osage version of Little Women is drenched in blood, riddled with poison, and overwhelmed by men.

As with so much of Scorsese’s work, Killers of the Flower Moon feels all the more compelling because it’s rooted in history. Between 1918 and 1931, hundreds of Osage were killed for their land. In Osage language, the name of the tribe means “calm water” and with heartbreaking irony, director Martin Scorsese shows us multiple shots of mutilated dead Osage bodies in tranquil pools. Alongside the ugliness is spectacular beauty. From drone shots that show a near-wild landscape of shimmering grass filled with cattle to meticulously recreated streets and homes, it’s easy to feel immersed in this world where fear is as picturesque as it is stifling. There’s a scene in which Ernest drives into a nearby town and sees every house is lit up, looking as festive as an Indian city during Diwali. It turns out these are “fraid lights”, turned on not as celebration, but to deter and catch murderers.

The plight of the Osage is seen through a number of minor characters, but central to Killers of the Flower Moon is Mollie. All the men who surround her, even those who profess to love her, like family friend William Hale (Robert De Niro) and her husband Ernest, have their secrets. In this world crowded by darkness, Gladstone’s Mollie gleams like a beacon of beauty and resilience. Her powerful performance elevates Mollie from a supporting character who flits in and out of the narrative, to the beating heart of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon

Of Evil and Immorality

Scorsese’s film is based on a book by the same name, written by journalist David Grann, whose work played a critical part in uncovering the extent of the violence the Osage nation suffered during what was known as the Reign of Terror. While drawing on Grann’s research, Scorsese also took notes from the present-day Osage community. Gladstone, a Native actor, told Variety that the eventual film is different from what Scorsese had originally planned and that the changes came out of “what the community had to say about how it was being made and what was being portrayed”. Compared to the book, Killers of the Flower Moon takes the time to linger with the Osage, watching rituals like weddings and naming ceremonies. The film hopes to be more of a portrait of a people while Grann approached the Reign of Terror as a murder mystery.

In contrast, Scorsese’s film has none of the tension of a whodunit. If you’re familiar with Scorsese’s films, you probably know who the arch villain of Killers of the Flower Moon is, just from the cast. Immorality and the slithering shiftiness of evil is something Scorsese has gone back to repeatedly in his films, creating charismatic villains who leave the viewer both terrified and fascinated. With this film, Scorsese might have created one of his most menacing bad guys. However, unsettling as the film’s Machiavellian mastermind is with his gentle voice and smug confidence, he’s not the only one to fear. Evil lurks everywhere and in everyone, creating a stifling atmosphere that acts as an unmistakable parallel to marginalised communities who have been exploited in other countries and at other times. Although DiCaprio, with his sad-bulldog expression, verges on cartoonish at times, he and Gladstone are a joy to watch in the sections of Killers of the Flower Moon that slip into the romance genre. Even so, Ernest and Mollie’s relationship beggars belief, especially when Mollie deliberately ignores a constellation of warning signs about Ernest. However, while Ernest’s changing relationship with Mollie and Hale moves the film’s plot forward — there’s a terrific scene that reveals Ernest is a pawn and where should he be standing at this moment, but on a chequered chessboard of a floor — the real contest is between De Niro and Gladstone. Whenever these two actors retreat from Killers of the Flower Moon, the film struggles to hold the audience’s attention.

While it takes some time for the mastermind to be revealed in Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese doesn’t attach much by way of either surprise or shock value to the unnatural deaths. Everyone knows the Osage are being targeted because they’re wealthy. The fact that we as the audience are also in the know makes us curiously complicit in these crimes. We’re silent witnesses and by the act of being in the cinema, we’ve become a part of the history. Viewed from the perspective of white men like Hale, the violence against the Osage is regrettable, troublesome but unremarkable. The Osage murders are dropped with clinical regularity, which serves as an effective reminder to the audience that there was actually nothing mysterious about these deaths. They were not investigated at the time because everyone knew what had happened to the victims, but no one was willing to put the truth on record because there was profit to be made. Even though these are histories that were once suppressed, Scorsese refuses to let either his characters or his audience hide behind the fig leaf of ignorance.

Complicity in Crimes Past

Killers of the Flower Moon is also careful to not appropriate Osage narratives through this retelling. Instead, Scorsese shows the unfolding events of the film from the perspectives of the white men, predominantly the beleaguered Ernest who finds himself torn between what is expected of him by his community and his complicated love for Mollie. While this places the responsibility of the tragedies upon white people, it also reduces the Osage to victims and the white men to victimisers. Very few characters in Killers of the Flower Moon are able to escape this binary.

Scorsese compensates for the perspective he’s chosen by layering the narrative with details that are often frustrating because they feel ripe for exploration, but remain untapped. Mollie and other Osage characters are filmed by cinematographer Rodrigo Pieto to resemble classical oil paintings, giving them a visual three-dimensionality that their written character arcs often don’t possess. From Mollie’s evocative silences to the tribal leader’s lament that the Osage language is being lost as English gains currency among the community, there’s a lot in this film to remind viewers about the power of hindsight.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, seeing Killers of the Flower Moon mostly through Ernest’s narrow perspective would leave audiences prickling with discomfort, but Scorsese is in fine form in Killers of the Flower Moon. Every now and then, he shifts his gaze, hinting at how much lies beyond the scope of the white men who think they’re in control. There are scenes like the goosebump-inducing moment when a group of Osage men do a celebratory dance, their oil-smeared bodies moving with sensual power to the pulsing bass line and electric guitar of the track titled “Osage Oil Boom” (composed by Robbie Robertson, who spent much of his childhood on a reservation). As joyous as this scene is, the way the oil becomes a mask that removes the men’s features feels vaguely ominous, hinting at how this discovery will dehumanise the Osage. The final scene of the film shows a kaleidoscopic Osage celebration, which is a vibrant, heartwarming and hopeful contrast to the scene from the past.

Scorsese also holds the audience’s attention by moving between genres with the grace of skipping stones. The film begins in the style of silent films, with text plates interspersed between scenes of black and white footage with an archival texture. Colour leaches into the frame, letting the viewer know Scorsese is mixing historical fact with the sensibility of fiction. Along the way, Killers of the Flower Moon tips its hat to the Western, which has played such an important role in building America’s cultural identity, and then to the procedural. There are even comedic elements, which serve to underscore the absurdity of the incidents unfolding on screen. In the film’s final chapter, there’s one last twist — complete with a cameo by Scorsese — which reminds the viewer that history is the domain of the dominant. Being rich wasn’t enough to tilt the scales in the favour of the Osage. They were still sidelined and their trauma was often erased from historical record, thanks to a racist worldview. From the photographs to the silent films and the radio play, all these formats seen in Killers of the Flower Moon were developed by white people (men, in most cases) for an audience like them. The radical intervention seems to be Scorsese’s film, which (while still being made by a white man) includes Native actors and technicians, and whose audience is international. The truth has to be imagined into being because of the concerted effort to make it disappear from records. To that end, it must have music, twists, cameos and all those tricksy trappings because no matter how harrowing the facts may be, it must still be entertainment.

Killers of the Flower Moon now in theatres
Killers of the Flower Moon now in theatres

Sing Back What You Sung In

As stylish and clever as these creative sleights of hand may be, Killers of the Flower Moon does leave the viewer with a niggling sense of disappointment. Despite its honourable intentions, the perspectives of the Osage people remain unexplored. They only hover on the edges of the white men’s decisions and actions. DiCaprio and De Niro both get ample opportunity to show how complex Ernest and Hale are, but Mollie remains inaccessible to us. If Killers of the Flower Moon feels like Mollie’s story, it’s because of Gladstone’s extraordinary performance in a role that doesn’t do justice to either Gladstone’s talent or Mollie’s experiences. The script is, in fact, enamoured by the two men and their immorality. It spends little time on understanding what made Mollie submit to Ernest as much as she did or what made her wise up to the dangers hovering around her. Killers of the Flower Moon only lets us see Mollie’s suffering, from the ignominy of having to declare herself “incompetent” to the terror of knowing her home is no longer a safe space. It doesn’t attempt to imagine what acted as the catalyst and pushed her towards breaking out of her constraints. Nor is it interested in the life she built for herself after becoming free of those who had threatened her.

Killers of the Flower Moon shows the stranglehold in which a group of white men kept the Osage, but even if the historical record of the day submitted to this dominant community and whitewashed the truth, shouldn’t art do better? Enabled by the imagination, shouldn’t art be able to make space for those who were erased and give words to those who were silenced? As beautiful and moving as Killers of the Flower Moon is, it fails to conjure a voice for the Osage, one that is not limited by the perspective of white America. Storytelling, whether in a novel or a feature film, is all about adding perspective and one of fiction’s greatest strengths is that it can expand beyond the constraints of facts and realism. It’s this expansive quality that makes storytelling such a powerful (and potentially subversive) device, because the imagination opens our eyes to those who have been invisibilised. Stories, whether told in song or literature or cinema, can do right by those whom history treated unfairly. Killers of the Flower Moon goes a long way in doing this, but isn’t able to go the whole distance. Instead, it remains mired in mourning, despair and erasures. Despite its best intentions and powerful performances, the film lacks the fury and the hope that come out of a confluence of imagination and hindsight, like in these lines by American mixed heritage poet Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:

….My song will make it so

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,

I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh, I will — I do.

America, I sing back. Sing back what you sung in.

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