Film Reviews

Killers of the Flower Moon

Published October 21, 2023
Mollie should never have tipped this taxi driver

In the language of Hollywood, “based on a true story” usually means: “a wildly distorted account of some real event that retains a mere spectre of the truth.” This usually prompts me to go home and look up the actual story, if only to satisfy my worst suspicions. After three-and-a-half hours of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, the urge to investigate was irresistible. The surprise was that the director had stuck almost exactly to events as they happened.

It takes a certain kind of mastery to make such a film, and a very good relationship with the studio. At the age of 80, Scorsese knows how to make a long story move swiftly. As the film is produced by Amazon and will find its main audience on cable TV, he has had the freedom to be expansive. Fans who have already sat through previous three-hour Scorsese epics such as The Wolf of Wall Street and The Irishman, will not be put off.

Killers of the Flower Moon is set in the early 1920s, in the lands of the Osage, a native American tribe who have grown wealthy through oil, or rather through a mistake by an Oklahoma government that thought it was handing over legal title to a patch of dry, unfertile land. The oil riches have created a community, in the town of Fairfax, in which the Indians live in large houses, bedeck themselves in fine clothes and jewellery, and are driven around by white chauffeurs.

The hitch is a paternalistic requirement that the Osage need a white guardian to approve and countersign their withdrawals. A more pressing problem is that many of their men and women are losing their lives in suspicious circumstances, or simply being murdered. These crimes are investigated half-heartedly and never lead to any convictions. When the victim is an Osage woman married to a white man, her wealth is inherited by the widower.

Back from the war comes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has decided to try his luck in this community, where his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), is a man of wealth and power. “Call me King” Hale gives his nephew a lecture on the nobility of the Osage, and hands him a book to read. As he does this, he is sounding Ernest out, discovering a stupid, spineless, and venal personality that will prove easy to manipulate.

When Ernest begins to drive a taxi, his best customer is Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a local Osage woman who will gradually succumb to his crude charm, even though she can see he’s no genius. Ernest dotes on his wife, but this doesn’t prevent him from getting involved in some dangerous activities on the side. At the same time, the mysterious deaths continue, bringing tragedy to Mollie’s family.

Scorsese takes his time introducing us to the characters – notably Mollie’s reckless sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers), Ernest’s hard, cynical brother, Bryan (Scott Shepherd), and a range of supporting figures who fall into the roles of gruesome exploiters or hapless victims. All the time, ‘King’ Hale works hard to shore up his status as friend and protector of the Osage, while secretly plotting their downfall. It’s only when matters go too far, and discreet murders turn into an eruption of violence, that the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation sends a lawman to find out what’s going on.

Jesse Plemons plays the unflappable agent, Tom White, who politely and methodically begins to unravel the web of lies Hale has spun, identifying Ernest as the weakest link in the conspiracy. The last part of the story becomes a courtroom drama, as the prosecution and the defence – led by a booming Brendan Fraser – battle to secure Ernest’s loyalty.

This is another great performance from Leo DiCaprio, Anybody can play a louse, but DiCaprio’s Ernest is a deeply confused, conflicted louse. Although he is ready to do anything and everything his uncle demands, he seems to really love Mollie. He knows the medicine he has been instructed to administer is only making her sicker, but he does it anyway, blubbering over his own bad luck.

As for Mollie, Lily Gladstone plays her as a stoical character who can see all of Ernest’s faults and weaknesses but remains attached to him. It’s a love story under duress in a town in which few of the white inhabitants see the Osage as anything but a ready source of revenue, waiting to be fleeced. Somewhere within Ernest there is a decent person, but he is buried under layers of cowardice and ignorance.

There’s been much talk about Killers of the Flower Moon being Scorsese’s attempt to portray the systemic racism that has infected so much American history. If it were as simple as that he’d be in line for a swag of Oscars next year, if we may judge by the Academy’s recent choices. I’m not sure, however, that racism is Scorsese’s main theme. There’s no denying that Hale and his crew are blatant racists who view the Osage as an inferior branch of humanity and feel their wealth should be transferred to the white man, but few racists are able to ingratiate themselves so successfully among those they despise. The problem for Scorsese is one that he has explored in many of his previous films: the problem of evil.

Hale, with his glib paternalism, is an intensely evil character, but Ernest is a failure in this department. Where his uncle has learned to play the role of a benevolent patrician, Ernest can’t draw a line between fact and fiction. He is unable to reconcile his genuine feelings with the part he is expected to play in this genocidal plot. The lack of intellect that makes him malleable also renders him dangerous and unreliable.

The Osage allow Hale to deceive them for the same reason that their women keep marrying white men: because they have no conception that such premeditated evil can exist. They get angry, drunk, depressed and sad, but they are not schemers. Like all tribal people they are anchored in the past, in their own territory, their own myths and traditions. It’s only men like Hale who subscribe to the dreams that money can buy.

If Killers of the Flower Moon is not Scorsese’s best-ever film – and we all have our favourites – it’s certainly one of his greatest. From the deeply flawed characters to the detail-perfect sets, the slow-burning tragedy of the native people whose wealth is also their death warrant, and an excellent score by the late Robbie Robertson (who wrote The Night they Drive Old Dixie Down), this is a film of great moral force by a director completely in command of his medium.





Killers of the Flower Moon

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Written by Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese & David Grann

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Cara Jade Myers, Tantoo Cardinal, Jason Isbell, Scott Shepherd, Jillian Dion, William Belleau, Janae Collins, Louis Cancelmi, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow

USA, M, 206 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 October, 2023