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Killers of the Flower Moon

dir. Martin Scorsese

Review by Z. K. Abraham

Killers of the Flower Moon, the highly anticipated adaptation of the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann, is the latest feature from Martin Scorsese. It’s an epic film, a historical, family and crime saga that clocks in at three-and-a-half hours, yet it keeps the viewer riveted throughout its lengthy running time.

Scorsese and Eric Roth’s screenplay is a fictionalisation of the real murders of many Osage Nation members in 1920s Oklahoma. The film follows Mollie Kyle, a proud member of the Osage nation, played by the luminous and compelling Lily Gladstone, who is of Siksikaitsitapi and Nimíipuu descent. Mollie marries a white man, Ernest Burkhart. Burkhart, played with a slipperiness by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a cowardly scoundrel and thief, who genuinely appears to form an attachment to Mollie, but is also led by his own racism and cruelty to increasingly take part in the attempted destruction of the Osage. Burkhart, along with his powerful uncle William Hale, played by a conniving Robert DeNiro, are part of a spidery web of white townsfolk using intermarriage and murder to systematically dominate and destroy the Osage for their oil money. Jesse Plemons gives an understated yet cutting performance as Thomas Bruce White Sr., the agent from the newly formed Bureau of Investigation; he has come down with a team to investigate the escalating murders, after Mollie and other Osage repeatedly ask for government intervention.  

The sheer number of Native American actors in the film is refreshing and unprecedented in a mainstream Hollywood film. Despite the star power of DeNiro and DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone commands the screen with a restrained depth of emotion, and is the heart of this story.

The major question facing Scorsese was how to tackle this multi-faceted chapter in history and do justice to Osage history and trauma. There have been mixed reactions from Native commentators, particularly around the balance of focus between the white and Native characters, and the brutal depictions of violence. As one of the film’s Osage language experts noted: 

‘[T]his film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage. For those that have been disenfranchised, they can relate, but for other countries that have their acts and their history of oppression, this is an opportunity for them to ask themselves this question of morality, and that’s how I feel about this film.’ 

The film may have benefited from more attention to the broader native responses to the murders and their everyday lives. There are many quietly horrifying scenes of Hale and Burkhart conspiring, along with other members of the community, to murder particular Osage people for their inheritances or insurance payouts, and scenes depicting these abrupt, calculated murders. The film’s focus on casual white violence and subsequent Native American trauma do serve a deeper purpose; to display the banality of evil. Scorsese keeps the viewer riveted and repulsed by the reality of this American racism, violence and greed. 

What the film does offer, if not sufficient time with the Osage characters, is a deeply felt, authentic view of 1920s Oklahoma and wondrous glimpses of Osage culture. There are sweeping, vivid visuals, crafted in 35mm film by cinematographer and frequent Scorsese collaborator Rodrigo Pietro. Old photographic stills and specific lenses that depict a muted colour palette similar to autochrome (early colour photography) transport us through time. Bright sunlight and lenses that emphasize highly contrasted, vivid colours reflect traditional Osage colour palettes and the cultural significance of the sun. An owl filmed in high contrast is a surreal, haunting visual of Native American beliefs around death. Scorsese speckles rich details from Native consultants throughout, for example, when Mollie tells Ernest to listen to the rain, respecting the Osage belief that rain is a gift from Wah’Kon-Tah (the Great Spirit).

The score is by the late Robbie Robertson, who played with Bob Dylan and was lead guitarist for The Band, and who was of Mohawk descent. He combines blues, rock and Native American flute to craft a thrilling soundtrack. Costume designer Jacqueline West and Osage-nation member and costume advisor Julie O’Keefe bring authentic detailing to Osage and period costuming, including revolutionary era military coats that have become wedding coats, passed down through families for daughters to marry in, handmade ribbon work and finger weaving. The filmmakers have clearly used extensive research to steep the viewer in this specific time and place.

Killers of the Flower Moon will keep you invested as you witness the horrific progression of the Osage murders, the personal saga of Molly and her family, and the vibrant and sacred details of Osage tradition.