Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a masterpiece

5 out of 5 stars

Violence runs rampant in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s tangible and brutal as the Osage people are murdered without repercussion. Scorsese’s gaze doesn’t linger on the individual nature of suffering. The camera remains at a distance as we watch mundane and often careless acts of killing. Instead, it lingers on carefully dressed-up corpses of the Osage people, dressed for the afterlife – their skin taut and pale, their expression peaceful. Death, though, stands and waits at the edges of life itself. As mothers care for their children, friends gossip over a drink and sisters joke about sex. Death is all around. 

Killers of a Flower Moon depicts the true story of what happened when the Osage tribe discovered oil on their reservation and suddenly became some of the richest people on Earth. Their sudden wealth attracted not only oil companies but hangers-on of all varieties, conmen and criminals hoping to snatch a piece of the pie they felt was unfairly “gifted” to the Indigenous people.

The film focuses largely on the story of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a yellow-toothed World War I veteran with a bad gut, a love of women and a simple mind. He comes to work for his Uncle William Hale “King” (Robert De Niro), who lays the rules of the land. King puts the idea in Ernest’s mind to find himself a native wife and reap the benefits of her wealth. Structured in ellipses and vignettes, the story moves forward as Ernest falls for Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and starts a family with her. Around them, death swirls like a tempest, claiming Mollie’s friends and family. There’s never an investigation; there’s never any help.

The film flows from gestures and glances as much as the violence of decisiveness punctuates it. More than a series of plot points, the film can be broken down into a series of decisions: tangible ones, such as hiring a man to kill your sister-in-law, and less tangible ones, like the decision to continue to love a man who has betrayed you. The movie also exists in laughter and tears, the overflowing of emotions and the spread of sickness — physical and spiritual.

Evil runs through this movie. The white men orchestrating the quiet destruction of a community due to sheer entitlement over their lives, land and wealth is painfully mundane. The writing and filmmaking underline the essential qualities of their monstrosity. They might claim friendship, marriage and kinship with the Osage, but they still see them as lessers. The murders are compounded by betrayals at every turn. The violence isn’t merely physical; it’s systematic and dehumanizing. Despite the enormous wealth of the Indigenous community, they’re treated as children, asking for permission to spend their own money. In one of our first scenes with Mollie, she is forced to ask for her own money to pay for medical treatments. 

Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese presents us with a world that’s sweeping and all-encompassing. He gives credit to the audience to put together the fraying threads of American identity. The recent war casts a dark shadow of violence on the behaviours and spirits of the men; we watch newsreel footage of the Tulsa Riots and the KKK parade through the streets. The tension of violence and greed runs through everything. If some of Mollie’s sisters die from a “wasting” illness (some, though, were likely poisoned), the wasting feels like a natural response to a world so heavy with darkness and stress — their vitality and life force sucked from them until they’re empty husks. 

What anchors Killers of the Flower Moon is the central love story. Ernest loves Mollie. His marriage to her may have been rooted in a seed planted by his uncle, but he adores and cherishes her. It’s what makes his actions all the more reprehensible. What is love in this context? What is love if he’s willing to sacrifice her family for his gain and poison her (literally and spiritually)? Though from the opening moments and his dull yellowed teeth, a kind of rot flows through him, and he seems increasingly haunted by flies as the film continues. The decay is deep-set and spreading; the world will see him for what he did. His simple-mindedness made him especially vulnerable to manipulation from his uncle, but it does not absolve him of his sin.

As for Mollie, she also loves Ernest. He’s reliable and kind, and he loves their children. As the film progresses, though, and as Mollie’s grief only compounds, her love for him becomes even more complicated. To stop loving her husband and their relationship even as he poisons everything they have and cares for means admitting she invited the vampire into her home. To stop loving Ernest means she has to stop loving the world. In a film filled with decisions, the story of Ernest and Mollie highlights that love is a choice, and sometimes, we choose love because the alternative is so unfathomable. 

The film eventually turns around toward the idea of justice as the FBI steps in to investigate. But justice, though important, feels motivated by the same thing that initially kept investigators at bay. It’s not driven by moral goodness, an ingrained sense of right and wrong, but a different breed of greed and control. The government doesn’t step in for their own good will — they need to be paid off and begged. The veneer of politeness among white, wealthy men is an overwhelming barrier to seeking justice. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is a thorny, complex and evocative film from one of our greatest filmmakers. It’s an epic that illuminates deep injustice and the resilience of the Osage people. Scorsese has spoken at length about working with the Osage to adapt and transform the story into something truer to life, and the apparent changes contribute to the film’s complexity and astonishing political breadth. ■

Killers of the Flower Moon (directed by Martin Scorsese)

Killers of the Flower Moon opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 20.

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