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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Killers of the Flower Moon


Mollie (Lily Gladstone) gets to know Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Killers of the Flower Moon (Distributed by Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese is by far best known for telling stories about crime. Men who steal or kill to create a way of life for themselves. His latest, the historical drama Killers of the Flower Moon (198 minutes, without the end credits) centers around a man coaxed into doing terrible things in the name of family and money. However, on a bigger level, it is about a people who were displaced from their home, lucked into riches, then saw the horror money can bring with it. Their deaths aren’t strictly due to racism (though that definitely had something to do with how little the police investigated); it is due to greed. It is a fascinating, sad, entertaining movie, partially thanks to the writing and very strong performances, but largely because Scorsese knows exactly what he is doing with a story like this.


Epics concerning ordinary men casually justifying horrific actions for personal gain is absolutely Martin Scorsese’s wheelhouse. He has been accused of glorifying his criminal characters in the past, taking pleasure in their rise and sympathizing with their fall (this is a common complaint leveled at Goodfellas, the accuracy of which doesn’t make that movie any less incredible). I don’t think that can be said here. These are purely evil, selfish, cowardly men, not antiheroes. They aren’t outsmarting/outmaneuvering people from the shadows; they operate in plain sight, protected by their status and how little the government cares about their victims.


In adapting David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, Scorsese seems to have found something that deeply affected him. There is some kind of connection between him and the material that makes this feel personal and intimate. Even though it is set 100 years ago, he makes it feel fresh and devastating. This is a piece of history that never gets discussed. Scorsese has taken great care in giving it the respect it deserves. It is another remarkable achievement in a career full of them.

Ernest gets some advice from his uncle, King Hale (Robert De Niro)

In the late 1800s, after being forced from their home, the Osage Nation discovered large quantities of oil underneath the land they owned. While this brought wealth to the tribe, it also brought businessmen looking for their cut of the riches. Killers of the Flower Moon begins with Ernest Burkhart, recently returned from serving in the first World War, showing up in Osage County, Oklahoma at the behest of his rich uncle William Hale (referred to as “King Hale”). Ernest is content with honest work, but King talks him into courting an Osage woman whose family has profited greatly from the oil. Despite the possibility that Ernest’s feelings for Mollie may be genuine, their relationship sets off a series of tragic events for her family and her tribe.


Initially, this seems like it is Ernest’s story. We enter into this world through his eyes. Similar to a lot of Scorsese protagonists, he doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad person at first. He’s naïve and feels like he owes everything to his uncle, so he does what he’s told. After all, his uncle has been good to him, which means he must be a good person, which means what he’s being asked to do has to be for a good reason. These are the lies Ernest persists in telling himself, to rationalize the lives he is taking and ruining. It is easier to do what King says than to be responsible for his own decisions, even if it requires hurting the woman he loves.


Though Ernest gets more screen-time, Mollie is the heart of this story. She is a smart, kind, proud woman, who risks her health to fight back against what is happening to her people. She knows what Ernest is from the moment she meets him, yet is charmed by him and believes he loves her. Perhaps she thought his feelings for her would overcome his loyalty to his uncle. Or perhaps she truly did not understand the extent of the danger King Hale posed to her people. Either way, she was wrong.

Mollie is played by Lily Gladstone in a fantastic performance that brings heart to a movie about heartless killers. She is an unknown in comparison to the heavy-hitters she shares the screen with, yet she more than holds her own. Starting off guarded, then loving, she ends up being filled with an intense anger and sadness that comes across just in the way she looks at the other characters. She has a scene near the end with Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest where the look in her eyes as he is talking says more than any words could and it is unbelievably powerful. Gladstone deserves every bit of praise she receives. This movie would have been lesser without her.


Of course, DiCaprio and Robert De Niro as King Hale are also really good. DiCaprio is impressive as a man who doesn’t seem to fully comprehend his actions. He is doing them for a man he trusts unconditionally, so it has to be okay. DeNiro brings an intelligent, persuasive menace to a guy who couldn’t care less who he hurts, as long as he benefits. The entire reason he summons Ernest to Oklahoma in the first place is because he knows his nephew can be manipulated. They are both Scorsese mainstays and they contribute precisely what he needed, not only for their relationship, but to establish everything the Osage Nation was up against.


There may not be anyone who tells American crime stories as compellingly as Martin Scorsese. With Killers of the Flower Moon, he strikes a delicate balance between his style and this awful true story he has chosen to recount. This is very much Scorsese, very much an examination of a significant series of events and very, very good.


4½ out of 5


Cast:

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart

Lily Gladstone as Mollie Burkhart

Robert De Niro as William Hale

Scott Shepherd as Byron Burkhart

Jason Isbell as Bill Smith

Jesse Plemons as Tom White


Directed by Martin Scorsese

Screenplay by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese

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