In the 1870s, the United States government forced a Native American tribe known as the Osage off their ancestral lands on the Great Plains to create space for white settlers. Relegated to a small, inarable reservation in northeast Oklahoma, the Osage – meaning “People of the Middle Waters” – would have followed their fellow tribes into poverty and destitution were it not for the fact that their new home, though lacking in crops and cattle, proved abundant in another, far more valuable resource: crude oil.
Leasing their land rights to prospectors at sky-rocketing rates, the Osage quickly became one of the richest communities in not just the U.S., but the entire world. Their shared wealth – an estimated $400 million by 1923 – transformed their Oklahoma reservation into a kind of parallel universe where conventional race relations were turned upside down: many Osage lived in mansions stocked with white maids and servants, and were driven around town by their own, white chauffeurs.
But while their newfound wealth gave the Osage respect and status, it also made them a target of violent crime. Instead of paying for the land rights, ambitious outsiders tried to inherit them by marrying into the family. One man, an already well-to-do rancher called William King Hale, went a step further, hiring killers to get rid of his in-laws so that he could have all their oil for himself. It’s these killings – the Osage Murders – that provide the setting for Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon.
Released on October 20 and based on a book of the same name by New Yorker journalist David Grann, the film stars Robert De Niro as Hale, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who presents himself as a friend and protector of the Osage while secretly plotting their extinction. Fellow Scorsese-collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hale’s nephew Ernest. Freshly returned from World War I, he enters the story looking for a wife and a job. His uncle provides both, and promises more.
Outcompeting both of these heavyweights is actress Lily Gladstone. Last seen in Kelly Reichardt’s indie hit First Cow, Gladstone portrays Mollie Burkhart, a quiet, kind Osage woman who unknowingly signs her own death sentence when she decides to take on Ernest as her driver. Initially collected and confident, the film sees her reduced to a shell of her former self as her loving husband and caring uncle take down one family member after another. It’s frustrating to watch, but that’s the point.
Scorsese’s choice to present the film from the perspective of the killers rather than that of the Osage has proven divisive among viewers. On the one hand, people feel Gladstone’s diminished role does a disservice to the real-life Mollie, with some comparing Flower Moon to a Holocaust story told from the viewpoint of a Nazi. Others rush to Scorsese’s defense, arguing that his approach, far from humanizing Ernest and Hale, enables the audience to witness the full depths of their depravity.
Scorsese wasn’t the first person to adapt the Osage Murders into a piece of “entertainment,” and he knows it. Conscious of the way previous adaptations have sensationalized the murders, Killers of the Flower Moon is not just a self-contained crime film, but also a commentary on the true crime genre: a genre which, on more than one occasion, has glorified criminals and dishonored victims for the sake of clicks, views, and profit.
In the final sequence of the film, Scorsese leaves Oklahoma and cuts to some point in the 50s or 60s, where the presenters of a radio show recount what happened to everyone involved with the Osage Murders. The vintage frontrunner of a true-crime podcast, immersive sound effects and narrative cliffhangers suddenly give way to an obituary of the real-life Mollie Burkhart. Read by Scorsese himself, the director looks at the camera as he states how the real heroine of his movie passed away – young, alone, and unavenged.
I’ve come across some reviewers calling this ending a copout, but I have to disagree. Although the change of setting and tone is jarring, it also provides a much-needed reminder that what we just watched is only a reconstruction of the past, not a replication. And while merely telling us what happened to Ernest and Hale isn’t as satisfying as showing it, the way films are supposed to do, it’s thematically fitting, as neither killer ultimately got what they deserved: oil or no oil, the system was still rigged in their favor.
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