Martin Scorsese’s latest film dramatizes the true story of a series of murders in 1920s Oklahoma, in which the Osage Indians were targeted for wealth gained from oil being found on their land.
Martin Scorsese has explored the darker side of humanity in many of his films. His journey into the problem of evil is darkest of all, I think, in his latest movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, based as it is on a real and very sinister conspiracy from the 1920s.
The 80-year-old Scorsese is focused on making his own kind of epics in this last phase of his career. In Killers of the Flower Moon, we have an account not only of a crime, but a symbol of a primal source of wrong on this continent—the subjugation of its native population by those of European origin.
In a deft prologue that mixes color with black-and-white period footage, we learn that the Osage Indians found oil on their Oklahoma land, which because they had retained mineral rights, enabled them to become wealthy through leasing of their land to oil developers. Some of them were able to even afford opulent houses and servants.
The main story begins with the arrival in Oklahoma of Ernest Burkhart, a World War One veteran with an air of simplicity and optimism, and a love of competition, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s there to work for his uncle, William King Hale, a wealthy rancher, played by Robert De Niro, who acts as a material benefactor to the Osage, and who already employs Ernest’s older brother.
But as we discover soon enough, Hale is one of a group of greedy white men that have insinuated themselves into Indian society, going so far as to get married into Osage families, but then conspiring to murder the wives and other family members so that their oil-rich land would eventually come by inheritance to the white men.
Ernest meets a young Osage woman from a wealthy local family named Molly, and played by Lily Gladstone. He becomes her chauffeur, and sure enough, they fall in love after awhile and get married. And here is a central ambiguity. Ernest genuinely likes Molly, and that like does grow into love, at least the kind of love that the intellectually limited Ernest could know. But at the same time, Hale is encouraging his nephew to marry Molly. He says he’s a great friend of her family, yet at the same time he’s not too shy to mention how profitable the marriage could be for Ernest.
Gladstone is a revelation as Molly. Her role is a kind of world in itself inside the film. Love, we discover, is for her a deeper reality than we might imagine. De Niro plays the most morally repulsive character in his career, and that’s saying a lot. He’s riveting. But Leonardo DiCaprio’s thick, slow Ernest, is the great enigma: the tragedy at the root of our inhumanity, Scorsese seems to be saying, is like a kind of sleep—the unconscious stumbling from one influence to another, one selfish act to another, that life becomes in an atmosphere of corruption.
This is classic cinema at its most elaborate. It is, however, the story of the Osage community that grounds the film. The native cast is excellent. And it’s not that Indians are more spiritual than the whites, or don’t have flaws. What we see, though, is that they’re connected, to the world and to family and to one another, whereas the white characters are trapped in a narrow and superficial version of self.
Finally, don’t let the film’s three and a half hour length prevent you from seeing it on the big screen. It’s not too often these days that you get to see a big film, in the truest sense, in a theater. Killers of the Flower Moon is a profound experience and a stark awakening from our shared American nightmare.