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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Picture it: A John Wayne-type is protecting a picture-perfect blonde-haired, blue-eyed family on the prairie. Their caravan is surrounded by marauding Native Americans hounding for blood. The John Wayne’s of this story, the strong silent types eventually come out on top, protecting their values from their potential murderers - killing and chasing them back to the godless plains with which white America is fighting so hard to win. It’s what all the movies from the golden age of Hollywood would show us - an image of what the West was and how it was finally won through heroism and honour over the bloodthirsty, simple savage. The truth in how the West was really won is obviously not as cut and dry. Violence, dishonour, and well, genocide carved the frontier into what is now America as we know it.

Although Killers of the Flower Moon takes place after the Western age (1865-1900), it still has the lingering effects of that battle, that war for the West – the strangulation of the Indigenous Americans as they well and truly have become unwelcome outsiders in their own land. Although there are accounts of the atrocities committed over the years on American soil, there is an alarming number of cases and events where these events have been brushed aside and swept away from people’s collective memory and understanding of what happened in the United States.

Based on David Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon looks at a baffling, unknown point in America’s history known as The Reign of Terror, where some sixty (reports suggest a most likely number well into the hundreds) members of the Osage tribe were murdered from the 1910’s to 1930’s in order to gain access to the fortunes and headrights they had gained from the oil discovered on their lands. This shocking series of frauds and murders also led to the birth of the FBI as the Osage had to literally beg and plead with the US government to send help before they’re all but wiped out from the face of the Earth.

As impactful as the book was in raising awareness of this shocking point in American history, one that had come and gone out of the country’s collective memory, nothing raises awareness quite like film and television. Its influence is more widely felt because let’s face it, that’s how most of us consume information these days. Take for instance HBO’s Watchmen (2019). Instead of just being a mini-series sequel to the legendary graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which in turn isn’t a comic book just about superheroes), it (among other things) also reckoned with America’s nationalist and racist past, present and probable future in shocking and interesting new ways. Through these themes, it drew attention to another tragic footnote in the United States of America’s short, bloody history: The Tulsa Massacre. Over the course of two days in 1921, the KKK killed, attacked and destroyed most of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma which was known as the Black Wall Street. But until Watchmen’s depiction or let’s say, revisit of it, almost no one was aware of it. They don’t teach it in schools. Even African American cast members of the show were unaware of what is one of the worst terrorist attacks ever on American soil. Despite being a fictional show about superheroes, Watchmen and the creators behind it, went above and beyond to educate its viewers on a vital piece of history that was unfortunately forgotten and swept aside because it isn’t a favourable narrative in the land of the free. Since then, there have been plenty of documentaries and programs educating people on it so that it may never be brushed aside so casually ever again. Killers of the Flower Moon will and already has done that for the Osage – an uncomfortable, unblinking eye that looks to expose sheer social and racial injustices Indigenous Americans have had to endure for so long at the hands of greedy, hateful men. And unfortunately, still experience it to this day.

David Grann’s book is an eye-opener. Its research is incredibly thorough and engaging – eliciting anger, disappointment and sadness in its reader as injustice after maddening injustice rears their many heads. Just for a little context, the Osage, after being forced to leave their ancestral lands of Missouri, were relocated by the US government to what was deemed an unfavorable slab of land in Oklahoma. Nothing of interest grew or took flight there, but this was to be their new home. Holding mineral rights, and unbeknownst to the government, a vast ocean of oil lay beneath their feet, and in 1897, this oil was discovered. The American government soon allowed leases for oil exploration and production on this land by oil companies, with each company having to pay annual royalties to Osage families and communities with whom the headrights belonged. This allowed the Osage to become incredibly wealthy, making them, at that point in time, per capita, the wealthiest people on Earth (by a long margin as well). But it wasn’t as simple as that. Despite gaining massive wealth which feels like God’s way of enacting justice for those who have suffered needlessly, white America didn't like this one bit. The media played a part in villainizing the wealth of the Osage, falsely reporting that they were wasteful and stupid with their money. And because white America was painting them as being a problem due to them having what they deemed as “undeserved wealth” (some article headlines even suggested “Are the Osage too wealthy?”), they enacted restrictions upon them in the form of guardianships as well as capping their annual spending and withdrawal amounts to ridiculously small amounts. Later on, there would be many cases of poverty amongst Osage despite them having what would be millions in their bank accounts, but having no way to access it to pay for good healthcare, food, education and housing. In order to access more money, they would need the aforementioned guardian, and those guardians, by law, had to be white (or at least half). There would be those who either married or agreed to be guardians out of genuine goodwill so that Osage could have access to their fortunes, but as expected, this made way for crooks and opportunists who would bleed the Osage for everything they had.

It’s not so much a key theme in all of Scorsese’s work, but the act of betrayal is a major plot and character beat that is found throughout his work. They’re often major moments that send his characters toward their arcs/destruction. So it’s no wonder that Scorsese is drawn so heavily to this within Flowers of the Killer Moon. Greed and betrayal are the key acts and themes found throughout this entire tragedy but both film and book are different in design. Both are highly effective In their lanes but both are achieved and translated in different, effective ways. David Grann’s book is more of a crime procedural, whereas the film focuses on the relationships that amplify the relationship greed and betrayal have with one another here – a recipe for unfair gain, as well as both, deserved and undeserved destruction. Initially, the screenplay was far more in line with the overall tone and structure of the book, focusing on the extraordinary works of Agent White (played by Jesse Plemmons) and his team of investigators as they look to bring justice to those wicked men. But thanks to rewrites, the film pivoted to a more personal approach, one that looks to delve deeper and further analyze the gestating betrayal and soured love the book approached with a colder eye. It’s without a doubt the most compelling tale at the center of the book, and by focusing on the central relationship between Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Osage wife Molly (Lilly Gladstone), we get a deeper sense of the inhumanity that is at play as the wolves continue to hide among the sheep. With Scorsese’s instincts as a filmmaker, a storyteller of the highest caliber, allow him to look deeper into what the story is really about. It’s not just about a marriage built on lies and violence, but about white America’s greed and desire for more power by any means necessary and how it in turn, completely failed and deceived its true children.

Both book and film are structured differently in regards to how revelations come about as well. In the book, it is revealed only one-third into the book that the upstanding ally to the Osage, Ernest’s uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) is in fact pure evil, serving as the main figurehead, the puppetmaster in all the violence and fraud that took place during this time. It’s also revealed at this point that Ernest is one of his key men in carrying out these actions that are both short and long cons in gaining control of all the headrights, with bodies continuing to pile up all around them. The film, however, informs us of these intentions, this betrayal, the moment we meet them shortly after the film’s thrilling opening sequences. Ernest steps off a train, seeking fortune offered to him by his scheming uncle, smiling at his Osage admirers before stabbing them in the back (metaphorically in this case). Holding off on the reveal in the book makes it such a particularly captivating read, a real detective story that is missing here.

Thankfully, the film's approach works just as well. These shocking revelations of betrayal are highly effective on the page, but the movie lays its card out on the table for all to see (except the Osage of course, who knows these murders are happening but can’t figure out by whom). So why change this? Scorsese has always been interested in the demons that drive men to do what they do, and here, we get some of his most evil subjects driven by the almighty dollar. Greed drives these men, nothing more. Ernest may have loved Molly, the book certainly covers his levels of remorse and regret towards the end, but it doesn’t change the fact that he set out to do this from the get-go. It makes this long con that much harder to digest as Scorsese looks to break apart a man at war with his earthly desires and the morale code he has all but abandoned. This, however, doesn’t mean we are looking to sympathize with his choices, and thankfully Scorsese doesn’t let him off the hook, allowing for his despicable actions to be as awful as they actually are. Just how could anyone do this to their fellow man let alone to their wife, the mother of their children?

This then brings up the point of violence within Killers of the Flower Moon and how it is portrayed and perceived. When people think of Scorsese, the extreme violence of his gangster epics always spring to mind. But despite what many may think, Scorsese is not as gratuitous with it. There's a purpose to it all. It may be shocking and sudden, but it’s how these bursts of violence interact with his subjects and the perpetrators of said violence. They’re acts that are brutal and done without a second thought by those wielding it. That’s because whenever characters use it in his works, they are often molded by this violence. It’s become second nature to them as much as it is for someone to breathe, blink and eat. There’s nothing to it. And that is often why the violence is so effective in his works. They appear to mean nothing to the characters enacting it, but as a viewer, we are immediately shocked by it. Whether it’s the infamous eye-popping vice scene in Casino, the beheading of a Christian in Silence, or Jake LaMotta physically abusing both his wife and brother. Scorsese’s violence is a design unto itself meant to provide insight into the themes and characters of his story, to show who his characters really are even if they can't quite realize it. Violence drives these men so that they may enforce their power, their arrogance. Now, we know that not just the Osage, but all Native Americans suffered genocide. We already know unimaginable violence was inflicted upon them, so why show it? Is it excessive? Why do we need to see suffering when we know it happened? In films like Schindler’s List, Come and See, The Killing Fields, etc. and novels like Blood Meridian (THE anti-western), the violence is unforgivably brutal and inhumane. Once again, that's by design. Sometimes, in order for people to even slightly comprehend the weight of the horrors that befell a people, they need to see small glimpses into it. Schindler’s List would not have been as effective if we didn’t see just how horrific it was, and although it’s hard to take in, especially with Scorsese’s brand of violence, we need to face the hard truths that exist: these were brutal murders performed in the most casual of manners. And IT HAPPENED. Like Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s use of shocking, extreme violence is necessary in painting the brutal truth of how the West was won. And with Scorsese’s interpretation of the grim violence inflicted upon the Osage by white America, reminds us of not how the West was won, but how it was stolen. It’s hard to watch characters routinely disposing of their marks without any remorse and as mentioned before, this is by design: providing startling insight into the mindset of these violent, greedy men as they view the Osage as lesser creatures, merely disposable objects much like the gang of hired scalpers do in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It has been drawing criticism from some viewers as viewing the Osage as victims rather than people, but that is something I don’t agree with. It can be very easy to brand victims as just that, victims, but when you look at how Native Americans have been portrayed as invaders in classic Westerns, it’s time that the Western strips back and shows that these diverse tribes were in fact victims of genocide – a growing scheme to wipe them out because the white man views them as inferior beings. It’s a brutal viewing experience, but completely necessary in understanding the pain they went through, and as the characters casually dispose and tinker with the dead, shows the sheer inhumanity in snuffing out a vibrant culture desperate to survive.

As mentioned before, the book is primarily told through the objective perspective of a factual investigation, but David Grann is a white man, and so is Eric Roth and so is Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. And although we get some sort of perspective from Molly at points, the series of events are often seen through that of Ernest. The film still remains highly effective in its’ viewpoint, but it does find itself limited as we are never given a true Osage vantage point. But it’s Scorsese’s insistence to shoot on location in Oklahoma, using mostly Osage cast, consulting with the Osage and ultimately getting fervent approval from Osage Chief Geoffery Standing Bear, allows for the film to not just be a white man's telling of events. After all, the evils that occurred were committed entirely by white men and this makes it feel like a forceful reckoning with America’s past, an unflinching depiction and reminder of the evils that stir within men. It may show the Osage as victims, but it also shows who the real monsters are, refusing to back down and allow any sort of repentance for them. It’s why it makes for such uncomfortable viewing because we know this to be a true documentation of events. And despite the rest of the country (and world) completely forgetting the likes of the Tulsa Massacre and in this case, The Reign of Terror, the victims and their families have never forgotten. With works like this, people will never forget again. It celebrates Osage resilience as much as it mourns the tragedies that befell them.

The film’s final scene, **MINOR SPOILERS** is one of the most poignant of Scorsese’s entire career. Instead of showing us where everyone is post-The Reign of Terror, we are treated to a radio broadcast performance of everything. An insultingly fast-paced summary of the pain and suffering felt, paired with silly voices and theatrics entirely performed by white cast members for a white studio audience. It’s theatrical and meaningless until Scorsese makes his appearance. I often squirm at directors placing themselves in their own works, but here, it serves a purpose, one that might be one of the most powerful scenes Scorsese has ever done. Playing himself, standing on a stage, he proceeds to read Molly’s obituary from the time of her death. “There was no mention of the murders”. There are many articles discussing just what this scene means so I won’t be saying anything new here, but it’s Scorsese at his most mournful and truthful, laying the cards out on the table and showing us that he did his best to honour the memories of those that fell during the Reign of Terror, to remind people of what happened in hopes that they will never forget. Could we have seen things more from the perspective of the Osage? From Molly? Absolutely. But thankfully, Scorsese is aware of this. It feels as though he is merely lending his voice, one of privilege and stature in order to bring the story of the Osage into light. It's a first step, the best he could’ve done, and in those moments we can see how he wishes he could've done more - hopefully opening way to more Native American voices who can tell their stories, tragic or not, in due course. Scorsese demystifies what the West is thought to be, and although the West has gone through gritty, more realistic reinventions over the years, none have felt this true to home due to its factual nature. Scorsese is a firm believer and supporter of the craft, going out of his way to promote and help younger filmmakers as well as restoring abstract works from all over the world - finding new audiences as they experience different voices from different perspectives. It’s this scene that all but confirms, at least in my opinion, that he is not only the greatest living filmmaker but one of our most important. *MINOR SPOILERS**

Oh, right. What are the performances like? Well, DiCaprio is at his very best. Unrecognizable, really, as a spineless, greedy man eventually coming to terms with the consequences of his actions. De Niro is at the best he has been in many years, playing the puppet master in Hale, a master of manipulation and charm unlike any of the other villainous characters he has played in the past. But it’s with Lilly Gladstone who is the true heart of the film. Scorsese has said this himself, and it’s completely true. While De Niro and DiCaprio are allowed to be despicable schemers, Gladstone as Molly is the quiet storm waiting to break free. She plays her character with such a hushed sense of mystery that it’s no wonder she remains the main “get” for Hale and his pawn in Ernest. The quietness of her performance is deafening, one that contemplates her place as an Osage woman at odds with her past, present and foreseeable future. It’s in every scene with her that allows for Killers of the Flower Moon to gain that vital Osage perspective, and although the film isn’t told through her viewpoint (something which an Osage consultant said would have to be done by an Osage filmmaker), it’s in these quietly intense moments with her that I wish it had been.

At 3 ½ hours, Killers of the Flower Moon is difficult to endure. But despite its lengthy running time, it succeeds as a slow-burning anti-western that removes the deceptive gloss of history being written by the winners. It has Scorsese at the height of his power, exercising his instincts in both restrain and necessary excess in order to show not how the West was won, but how it was stolen. It’s brutal in its violence but completely essential in what it needs to say, reckoning with white America’s relentlessly violent past it refuses to accept and remember. Much like how Watchmen reminded the world of one of its worst terrorist attacks with The Tulsa Massacre, Killers of the Flower Moon will do the same for The Reign of Terror. It’s an absorbing, maddening tale of blatant social and racial injustices that will have your blood boiling. It’s also Scorsese at both his angriest and most somber – containing one of the most poignant scenes of his career, a final scene that has him accepting that he may not be the definitive, final voice to deliver this or any Indigenous American story, but he will make damn sure to use the medium, and his special place in it, to tell you about it - making him not only our greatest living filmmaker (at least in my opinion), but also one of the most important. Bring on all the awards for Lilly Gladstone, please. Additionally, be sure to check out Lakota Nation vs. The United States. It’s not only one of this year’s best documentaries but also chronicles the continuing battle that Indigenous Americans have had to fight all these years.

Where you can watch it: In Theatres (Worldwide).

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