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, as they became known, this is a sprawling, densely plotted work that demands a lot of 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.
Killers of the Flower Moon
The Bottom Line
A master filmmaker expands his legacy.
Following the superbly crafted film’s Out of Competition Cannes premiere, Apple is planning a fall release (Oct. 6 limited, Oct. 20 wide) in partnership with Paramount ahead of its streaming premiere on Apple TV+, for which a date has not yet been set. That theatrical positioning seems ideal for a powerful drama that should figure notably among the year-end prestige crop.
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 DeNiro 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. 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, getting showered in black sludge to the electrifying sounds of Robbie Robertson’s century-spanning rootsy rock score.
That image then folds into a mock-silent newsreel, explaining how the Osage became “the chosen people of chance.” Driven from Kansas to what was then known as “Indian Territory,” before it became present-day Oklahoma, they were effectively exiled to worthless land. But having retained communal mineral rights, they became the richest people per capita on the planet, acquiring a taste for fine clothes, furs, jewels, fancy chauffeured cars, stately mansions and other trappings of luxury.
By the time Ernest arrives in Fairfax in the early ‘20s, the government has begun policing the flow of money by deeming some Osage “incompetent,” assigning them a white “guardian” with the authority to approve or deny spending.
Mollie, one of four sisters, who takes care of their aging mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal), endures that financial oversight with silently disdainful stoicism. But her full-blood family’s “headrights” over oil-rich tribal lands make her crucial to Hale’s plans. He puts his nephew to work for his cab company and when Ernest starts driving Mollie to and from town, a mutual attraction quickly develops between them.
Ernest makes no secret of his indolent nature, his love of money and whiskey, and while she calls him a coyote, Mollie is charmed by him. When Hale plants the idea that marrying her would be a “smart investment,” Ernest wastes no time proposing. He’s merely one of the countless white men who come “circling like buzzards” around easy money with what now seems like astonishing brazenness.
The Osage ceremonial wedding is a joyful interlude. Ernest genuinely loves his bride, while his uncle’s performative kindness to the community and respect for their culture seem almost convincing. But with startling bluntness, Hale maps out the desired scenario for Ernest at the funeral of Mollie’s sister, Minnie (Jillian Dion), who dies of an unspecified “wasting disease.” That loss echoes a series of untimely Osage deaths described in voiceover by Mollie, most of them seemingly healthy people in their 20s, all of them uninvestigated.
Hale points out the importance of channeling the estate of his nephew’s wife back to them. He explains that Lizzie is sickly and Mollie’s sister Anna (Cara Jade Myers), married to Ernest’s reptilian brother Bryan (Scott Shepherd), is a boozing good-time gal whose mouth and the pistol she packs in her purse inevitably will get her into trouble. That leaves only Mollie and another sister, Rita (Janae Collins), standing between them and the family’s oil wealth.
The intricacy of Hale’s planning and the ruthlessness with which he enlists his nephews and assorted lowlifes to do his dirty work is breathtaking in the most sinister way. He even has those scoundrels who might be inclined to talk iced to cover any trail back to him, all the while keeping his hands clean as a pillar of the community. Only later does he get sloppy, fuming when an insurance company balks at honoring a policy he took out on a vulnerable Osage “friend.” But even then, the town’s authority figures are either too corrupt or too indifferent to ask questions.
To some degree, this is a classic Scorsese crime narrative transposed to prairie territory in the script co-authored by the director and Eric Roth. And there are darkly amusing moments of anger in which De Niro’s colorful performance recalls his hall-of-fame wise guys. But the shift into historical Americana breathes a soulfulness into the material that feels distinct from most of the director’s output. This is a film as richly atmospheric as it is character-driven, heightened by the somber colors of Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and the evocative details of Jack Fisk’s customarily scrupulous period production design.
Where audiences familiar with the book might feel shortchanged is in the truncation of the chapters chronicling the birth of the FBI. Playing federal agent Tom White, who was dispatched by J. Edgar Hoover to lead the investigation after the Osage Tribal Council petitioned Washington to address the murders, fourth-billed Jesse Plemons only turns up in the final hour. Likewise, John Lithgow and a miscast Brendan Fraser as attorneys for the prosecution and defense, respectively, when the case goes to trial.
But without taking the limited series route, Scorsese and Roth make necessary choices in focusing on the steady buildup of treachery and dissemination of fear, planting a sense of horrified indignation that keeps you riveted throughout. Our investment in Mollie and the devastating losses she suffers makes the stakes in the courtroom scenes more tangible, with suspense expertly measured out in the haunting drumbeats of Robertson’s score.
All three leads are excellent, but it’s especially worth noting the complexity of what DiCaprio pulls off. Initially, Ernest seems a fairly standard character type, the cocky, dim-bulb guy of disposable moral fiber, easily influenced by someone much smarter. But he becomes more interesting as the anguish caused by his love for Mollie eats away at him, with the actor looking discernibly more haggard as Hale’s plot advances and he’s unable to extricate himself from it.
In addition to Plemons and Lithgow, who make their relatively brief screen time count, there are some incisive supporting turns in the mix.
Indigenous Canadian veteran Cardinal is stirring as the mother appalled that her daughters keep marrying white men and thinning the bloodline. New York stage regulars Shepherd and Louis Cancelmi make slippery villains, the latter blithely acknowledging his intention to sacrifice children for material gain. (He also does some completely wild clog dancing at Ernest and Mollie’s wedding.)
Southern rocker Jason Isbell makes an impression as creepy opportunist Bill Smith, who’s barely been widowed a minute after Minnie’s death when he gets hitched to Rita, but then makes the mistake of rubbing Ernest the wrong way in a tense exchange. And Jack White makes a brief appearance as an actor in a true-crime radio show about the murders, complete with studio orchestra and foley artists.
Audiences unfamiliar with Grann’s book — or with the actual history, which draws a parallel early on with the Tulsa Race Massacre — might be at a slight advantage here given that each nasty turn this ugly chapter from America’s past takes makes its depravity more astonishing. Scorsese has made an impassioned film that honors both the victims and the survivors.