Martin Scorsese’s 2023 film, Killers of the Flower Moon had a pretty long journey. The film first opened at the Cannes Film Festival and later had its official premiere in the USA in September. Soon after, the distributors began releasing it all over the world in a staggered format throughout the month of October. Since it’s a Martin Scorsese film, that too on the racially motivated murders that happened in the Osage Nation, you cannot even imagine the amount of opinions that have been unleashed upon the internet. There’s discourse around its running time, the storytelling, the performances, the depiction of Native Americans, the depiction of White Americans, what’s being endorsed, what’s being demonized, and more. And it is exhausting. Maybe it’s good and necessary, but it’s exhausting, especially when the CBM nerds open their mouths. However, the magic of a Martin Scorsese movie is that, as soon as it begins, all the noise just evaporates as he draws you into his domain and allows you to experience his and his team’s work in an (almost) unadulterated fashion. That’s why he is one of the best, and that’s why we should be glad he’s here making movies.
Eric Roth along with Martin Scorsese has adapted the screenplay of the film from David Grann’s book. The core narrative is centered around the Osage Nation, who found oil on the Oklahoma reservation. Where there’s oil, there’s white people trying to make it their own, and that’s exactly what happened with the Osage Nation as “guardians” were assigned to manage the money made by the Osage. But that wasn’t enough for the literal king of the hill, William King Hale. He maintained a good relationship with the Osage but harbored intentions of either killing them or marrying white people into Osage households, thereby putting a white stamp on the Osage estate, and then killing them. That’s where Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew, comes in after his stint as a cook for the army during World War I. Ernest robs the Osage by night, along with his brother, Byron, and works as a cab driver by day. Coincidentally (or maybe not that coincidentally), his daytime job causes him to cross paths with Mollie, an Osage who hails from a family that has access to oil. Initially, the romance between the two seems organic. However, with each passing day, it becomes evident that Hale is puppeteering Ernest to get his grubby hands all over Mollie’s family’s oil headrights.
I want to make one thing very clear: I’m clearly ill-equipped to talk about the crimes committed against the Osage nation, and I can’t offer even a semblance of the perspective that a Native American viewer can bring to the discussion around the Killers of the Flower Moon’s writing because I’m really, really far away from the North American continent, historically and geographically speaking. But what’s interesting about Scorsese and Roth’s screenplay is that it brings a sense of universality to the narrative because the story of the oppressor and the oppressed is a tale as old as time. You can put your finger on any country, any state, any city, any town, and any village, and you’ll find a story similar to this one. The magnanimity of the atrocity can vary, but the insidiousness is familiar. If it’s not oil, it’s something else. If there isn’t anything tangible, the oppressors fabricate history to continue their crusade against the oppressed. If they can’t fabricate history, they alter policies to quench their sadism that they derive from watching people suffer. And Scorsese and Roth are asking through the film, pretty directly, whether this behavior has changed, especially in a time and age where the system has the means to hold criminals accountable more easily than they did in the 1900s.
Technically, the world is progressing, but if this progress is costing thousands and millions of lives, is this progress really worth it? If there is oppression and genocide, can a country’s economic prowess be labeled as progress? If a country claims that it’s being inclusive and making amends for what it has done to its minorities, are the reparations proportionate to what was inflicted upon said minorities, or is it all performative so as to seem progressive? Even though Killers of the Flower Moon probably only scratches the surface of what the Osage Nation faced at the hands of white Americans, these are some of the questions that Scorsese and Roth pose before majority communities who think that the sins of their forefathers are in the rearview mirror and hence don’t need to be addressed anymore. They take off the filter of benevolence that the oppressors wear while telling a story and give us an uncomfortable look into the deceptiveness of white Americans. Despite portraying the Osage Nation as a peace-loving, law-abiding, and non-confrontational community, Scorsese and Roth never make them look weak. Instead, by highlighting the Osage’s warmth and resilience, they push audiences to wonder how evil one has to be to even think about choking the soul of this spiritual and humane tribe, let alone going ahead with executing such a heinous task.
When it comes to the technical aspects of Killers of the Flower Moon, the one thing that everyone seems to be talking about is the length, but what they actually mean to talk about is the pacing. The length of a film is never an issue because there are 3-hour-long films that seem to pass by in the blink of an eye, and there are 3-hour-long films that feel like an eternity. Scorsese’s film is clearly the latter, and, in my humble opinion, it’s necessary. As mentioned before, Scorsese and Roth want the audience to get an idea of the slow drip poisoning process that the white Americans adopted to murder the Osage Nation. We need to understand the weight and devastating nature of the act and actually see the numerous moments where Hale and the rest of the white Americans could have backtracked on this idea of causing large-scale murder for oil, and yet they didn’t. More importantly, we needed to see the tenderness of Mollie and Ernest’s relationship, which was frustratingly ruined by Ernest’s spinelessness because he stupidly kept doing what his uncle wanted him to do, thereby proving that a genocide enabler is as dangerous as a genocide monger. That’s why Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker meticulously show every gear that turned towards death and every gear that turned towards life. There isn’t a single scene that feels unnecessary or misplaced. The director-editor duo finds meaning even in repetition, and I think that’s perfect for a story like this.
Yes, Martin Scorsese is a legend, but I will admit that I was a little angry about the visuals of The Irishman. It just had that off-putting, washed-out appearance that has become synonymous with every other Netflix original release. So, it was truly satisfying to see texture and painterly frames in Killers of the Flower Moon. From the first second to the last, Scorsese—along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Jack Fisk, art directors, set decorators, costume designers, hair and make-up artists, VFX artists, colorists, and color grading artists—crafts moments in such a way that they are seared into our brains. I’m sure you’ve seen that one still image of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone sitting at the table that has become infamous for being repeatedly used for marketing, and given the context, it’s a still image about being still because the characters’ lives were about to change drastically. The film is marked with pangs of grief, and the way those revelations are lit and composed, it hits you on an emotional level without being melodramatic and over-the-top. And then there’s the scene where Hale essentially becomes Hades as he sets fire to his field to get insurance money while his minions dance in the rippling heat, which is nightmare-inducing. So, it won’t be a stretch to say that Killers of the Flower Moon is a visual masterpiece.
In terms of performances, it’s a gem of a cast. Lily Gladstone is fantastic. Mollie’s pride, her expressions of love towards her family and Ernest, and her refusal to give up even though she’s physically withering away are palpable. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers yet another all-time-best performance. He conjures the most punchable face I’ve seen in cinema, and his portrayal of one of the most idiotic characters is impressive. Robert De Niro continues to prove that he can spend major chunks of his career sleepwalking through the most thankless roles (most of them are bad “comedies”), but when his friend asks him to show up on the set, he’s going to bring his A-game. The way he exhibits Hale’s casual racism and unwavering devotion to murder is chilling. Cara Jade Myers is amazing as Anna, who has chosen to drink away her sorrows instead of facing what’s going on with her family. William Belleau is darkly comedic at times, as he fails to figure out what Hale actually is. Tantoo Cardinal is brilliant, even though her appearance is brief. Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, and Brendan Fraser all have extended cameos, and they knock it out of the park. A special shoutout should go out to Tommy Schultz, Pete Yorn, and Ty Mitchell for giving us three of the most thickheaded assassins. Truly hilarious work. Also, and I’ll keep this bit a little quiet, Martin Scorsese should take on more acting roles if he wants to.
Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the best films that demonizes white Americans for setting the narrative despite being one of the most cruel villains that humanity has ever seen. Yes, I have noticed all the “scathing” criticisms of the way the Osage Nation is written, and the way white Americans are written, with people either saying that the movie should’ve been made by a Native American director, or we should get more stories by Native American storytellers. But that misses the point of this film by a mile. Scorsese is here, putting the final nail in the coffin that is made of period pieces for white Americans. He is here to say that white Americans should stop portraying themselves as the pioneers of everything that’s great about the USA, because it’s quite the opposite. If they do, they should be the villains of those stories, not the heroes. He is saying that white storytellers need to make way for Native Americans because, historically speaking, they haven’t been able to tell their stories, at least on a mainstream platform. He is saying that studios owned by white people, whose foundations are made of privilege and racism, should channel their money towards the Native American community instead of pushing one of their own, because that’s what they are owed. If white Americans do none of that, even in 2023, they should know that they are proverbial wolves in the picture. Anyway, what you’ve read is my heavily biased opinion because I am really grateful that I got to watch a Martin Scorsese film on the big screen.