Martin Scorsese’sfilm is especially remarkable in its telling of violence, showcasing the ways racial harm and brutality can shadow as accident, illness, and even romance.
Set in 1920s Oklahoma, Martin Scorsese’s crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon is a film about the Osage Nation murders by the hands of white thieves looking to profit from their oil reservations and headrights. The film, in its narrative scope and dramatic interpretation, works on an epic scale to draw out the varying degrees of violence inflicted upon the Osage Nation.
We first encounter Ernest, played remarkably by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he returns from World War I to his rancher uncle William, a seemingly good natured deputy sheriff who moonlights as a con-man scheming to hunt down the Osage Nation members and steal their wealth.
Scorsese applies an ethnographic sensitivity in bringing to life the culture and traditions of the Osage Nation.
William, played by Robert De Niro, works as the perfect foil to Ernest. William moves through the world confident in his feigned wisdom, eager to immerse himself in Osage culture, while Ernest desperately grasps for meaning, too trapped in his naivete to question the motives of others. Together with Ernest’s brother Byron, they arrange marriages, conduct searches, and scheme murders in order to eventually inherit the Osage Nation’s coveted headrights and properties.
Killers of the Flower Moon is especially remarkable in its telling of violence, showcasing the ways racial harm and brutality can shadow as accident, illness, and even romance. Early into the film, Ernest falls in love with Mollie, an Osage Nation member. Their love story scans as genuine, and over time they get married and have children.
When William finds out about Mollie’s worsening case of diabetes, he persuades Ernest to give her insulin mixed with poison. He ends up giving her the poison-tinged shots while drinking some of it himself as well. The manic dilemma of slowly killing one’s wife in order to inherit her wealth plays out viscerally in DiCaprio’s face, a canvas of pent-up guilt and shame accruing over the course of the film.
In this sense, the film acts both as a historical document of the Osage Nation murders and a potent reminder of the persistence of racial violence. Scorsese applies an ethnographic sensitivity in bringing to life the culture and traditions of the Osage Nation. Throughout the film, the Osage language is deployed by the film’s characters, cultivating an awareness of linguistic privacy among the Osage Nation members.
For Scorsese, the subject matter makes clear his own gaps as a white male director, and throughout the film, he does not shy away from this subject position, instead allowing illegibility and remoteness to speak for themselves.
Scorsese handles the film’s screenplay (co-written with Eric Roth, whose 2017 book the film is based on) with nuance and deftness, giving room for the actors to flesh out complicated and extreme emotions. Most astonishing is Lily Gladstone’s performance of Mollie, whose sisters are ruthlessly killed off one by one.
Scorsese directs Gladstone with an intimacy that gives appropriate weight to the intensity of her grief. In one scene, Mollie emits a guttural scream after she finds out yet another one of her sisters has been murdered. For a moment, the entire room is occupied by Mollie’s grief—a haunting mix of anger, desperation, and despair—and then a hard silence passes. As viewers, we are drawn into the emotional nexus of Mollie’s psyche and Scorsese renders this dynamic with restraint, knowing when to offer intimacy and when to assert distance.
The scene is a tangible reminder of Scorsese’s masterful capacities in choreographing setting, emotion, and pacing to stunning and emotionally resonant effect. It is also telling of the film’s actual focus, Mollie, whose life straddles the line between keeping faith in her love for Ernest and exercising her agency in seeking justice for her people. Her character, pulsing with grace and self-knowledge, is the anchor by which the film orbits around, and this acts as a stark contrast to the parasitic whites—Ernest included—whose attempts to use her are craven and insidious.
Spanning nearly three and a half hours, the film never feels like a slog. The runtime allows for an encompassing yet detailed cinematography, full of vivid wide shots and thorough closeups. It also gives room for Scorsese to explore more fully the web of interconnections which make up the backbone of the film. Ultimately, Killers of the Flower Moon draws its strength from historicizing those connections, addressing with clear-eyed attentiveness the political and social prejudices undergirding racial violence.