Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” Explores a Dark Chapter in American History


Late in the action of Martin Scorsese’s enthralling account of the methodical elimination of Native Americans in early-1920s Oklahoma, Killers of the Flower Moon, a cynical lawman says, “You got a better chance of convicting a guy for kicking a dog than killing an Indian.”

That matter-of-fact acknowledgement of cruel injustice doesn’t even begin to describe the cold calculation, the corruption and greed, the vile duplicity, manipulation, and false piety that ripple through this shocking true-crime story like poison. Or like the oil that bubbles up from the ground and sets the insidious chain of homicides in motion.

Based on David Grann’s acclaimed nonfiction book about the Osage Murders, Killers of the Flower Moon is a sprawling, densely plotted work that demands a lot from its audience. But the three-and-a-half-hour running time is fully justified in an escalating tragedy that never loosens its grip—a sordid illustration of historical erasure with echoes in today’s bitterly divisive political gamesmanship.

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Money and violence have been prominent themes in Scorsese’s filmography, and for every facile charge ever lobbed at him of glorifying or glamorizing career criminals, he has usually delivered retribution to his antiheroes.

But there’s a different, more chilling feel to the reign of terror depicted here, a trail of slaughter that weighs heavily on the heart and mind at every step. There’s also a suggestion of a filmmaker reflecting on guilt and atonement, a notion strengthened by a strategic—and unexpectedly moving—cameo from the director.

The severity of the killings is amplified by the contempt shown for the humanity of a deeply spiritual Indigenous American people, but also by the hypocrisy of the chief orchestrator of the precision-targeted, one-by-one genocide.

That would be Bill “King” Hale, an affluent cattle rancher who presents himself as a righteous man and paternalistic friend to the community, giving Robert De Niro one of the most monstrous roles of his career.

And in Hale’s nephew and principal pawn, Ernest Burkhart, Leonardo DiCaprio scores an equally choice role, a spineless man tormented by his part in the nefarious plot, who keeps leaning toward redemption only to fall prey again to his weakness, stupidity, and the malevolent control of his uncle.

As good as those frequent Scorsese collaborators are, however, the revelation for many will be the wondrous Lily Gladstone as Mollie Kyle, the woman unfortunate enough to marry gold-digger Ernest.

Many of us have been waiting impatiently for Gladstone to land a substantial part since her piercingly sensitive work as a lonely ranch hand in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. And it’s taken a director frequently criticized for his scarcity of fully dimensional female characters not only to provide one but to make her the wounded heart of the movie.

A strikingly direct woman surrounded by deceitful men, Gladstone’s Mollie conveys as much with her expressive eyes or the subtle shifts of her mouth as she does with words.

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She’s transfixing in her self-possessed dignity and alert intelligence as much as her encroaching sorrow, or her physical agony when amoral conspirators and her gullible husband push her to the brink of death.

The degree to which Scorsese seems revitalized by this material can be seen in the brisk backgrounding that opens the film. The solemnity of an Osage burial ceremony at the end of the 19th century gives way to a jubilant explosion when oil gushes from the cracked earth, and young tribesmen hurl themselves in slow-motion into the air



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