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Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Why does this movie spend so much time with its white characters?
What’s more important to the art of storytelling: Meaning or form?
Ideally, of course, you get a balance a both: A well-told narrative that is also deeply profound. And in the worst case scenario, as with The Exorcist: Believer, Morbius, or any of the Transformers movies, you get neither: These are empty tales, incompetently-conveyed. But sometimes, you get one or the other: A story perfectly executed with nothing in particular on its mind, or a sloppy story with a LOT on its mind.
Martin Scorsese’s heavily-anticipated new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, falls into the latter category. It’s ambitious, dense, weighty, thought-provoking, and often heartbreaking, and it will undoubtedly educate a vast number of people about an appalling and shameful episode in American history that, like too many appalling and shameful episodes in American history, has been largely ignored. Purely as an episodic lesson in the travesties suffered by Indigenous people, Killers of the Flower Moon has incredible value.
But it’s also messy, long-winded, and overly focused on the wrong characters, and as much as I worship Scorsese, I can’t help but think that the story would have been better served by a filmmaker of Indigenous descent.
Based on David Grann’s bestselling non-fiction book, Killers of the Flower moon is set in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The Osage Nation has been displaced and forced to settle in Fairfax, roughly sixty miles from Tulsa. Which is terrible, except, oh hey wouldn’t ya just know it, their new land is lousy with oil, quickly making them the wealthiest people in the United States. Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t go over well with the white locals, many of whom engage in a years-long conspiracy to murder scores of Osage so as to steal all that oil money for themselves.
Grann’s book largely conveys the story through the lens of Tim White, a member of the nascent FBI, as he investigates the murders. Scorsese’s film, which he co-wrote with Eric Roth (Forest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), was originally supposed to star Leonardo DiCaprio as White. Then the director decided to shift the spotlight to Ernest Burkhart, a World War I veteran who becomes entangled with both sides of the conflict when weds a diabetic Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), even as he continues to aid his uncle, Bill “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), with the systemic slaughter of Mollie’s family. In the finished film, White is a relatively small supporting role, played by Jesse Plemons, while DiCaprio plays Burkhart.
Scorsese has said he made the change because he wanted to tell the story from “the inside.” Whether or not that’s accurate is, I suppose, a matter of semantics. Mollie and her kin - by far the most interesting characters in the film - are backgrounded for a substantial chunk of the runtime as we follow Ernest while he carries out Hale’s greedy, murderous machinations. In other words, white people are the stars of the movie.
There’s a way in Killers of the Flower Moon can be read as a refutation of “white savior” narratives (e.g. Glory, Dances with Wolves, Dangerous Minds, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond, a 2006 film in which DiCaprio also starred). DiCaprio and De Niro are, after all, huge stars with whom the audience has a pre-existing relationship, and assuming you’re honed in on their smiles and tones of voice and aren’t actually listening to any of what they’re saying, they don’t initially present as malevolent. As I noted recently when revisiting The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese very much wants us to consider the ways in which we’re all complicit in these heinous crimes, and one way to achieve that is to lure us in with white movie stars.
But there are a few problems with this strategy.
For one thing, we’ve seen both actors play villains enough that the notion of them playing deceitful bigots isn’t particularly shocking - I mean, DiCaprio famously portrayed a plantation owner in Django Unchained, fer cryin’ out loud! I’m just not sure the audience inherently trusts them as personas. We do not automatically root for them when they appear, which means there’s no shock value in the revelation of what their characters are doing, which means the viewer is never really forced to think, with a gasp, “That could be me and my dad up there!” If these characters were played by, say, Chris Pratt and Tom Hanks, it would be more akin to Henry Fonda showing up as the heavy in Once Upon a Time in the West, where the actor’s first scene, in which he shoots a child point-blank, was a total gut punch to audiences in 1968.
More importantly, while DiCaprio and De Niro are both excellent, neither of their characters are especially interesting. Hale is just your run-of-the-mill racist asshole, such an obviously-duplicitous snake that it’s hard to understand how anyone could fail to see right through him, or even why he held so much sway over Ernest… other than the fact that Ernest is a dolt (even Mollie says so), which is part of the reason he’s not all that intriguing.
The element that might have made Ernest compelling - his inner conflict over betraying the woman he loves - isn’t given much thought here. Time and again, he asserts that he’s genuinely in love with Mollie, but it’s not clear to what degree he believes that. He’s directly involved with the murder of her sisters, and he unquestioningly goes along with Hale’s instructions to dose Mollie’s insulin with an unknown foreign substance (Did he understand he was helping to poison her? It’s played for ambiguity, but, I mean… he must have, right?). If his participation in genocide were more gradual… if the choices with which he were faced were not so blatantly evil… or, again, if he was played by an actor not already widely-known for playing a homicidal racist… it might have forced the audience to confront their own complicity in American discrimination. Again: There’s just no true sense that Ernest could be any of us, or that we, faced with the same dilemmas, might have made the same choices. If there was, it would have gone a long way towards conveying Scorsese’s message.
Moreover, by letting the audience in on Ernest’s double-dealings right from the start, the story completely robs itself of any suspense; when White and the FBI show up to investigate the murders halfway through the movie, we’re just waiting for them to catch up with what we already know. There’s definitely a way to make that work - think about how much tension many filmmakers, including Scorsese, have squeezed from killers trying not to get caught - but that’s not really KotFM’s angle, either.
The aggregate result of these missed opportunities is a persistent feeling that we’d be better served just getting back to Mollie and her family. The many, many scenes in which Ernest and Hale surreptitiously meet to discuss their scheme start to feel redundant - which isn’t great for any movie, let alone one that takes a sixth of a day to watch.
It’s not clear why Mollie and Ernest love one another (assuming that we ever believe Ernest loves Mollie at all). In Scorsese’s own Goodfellas, we see the gradual development of the romance between Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his wife, Karen (Lorraine Bracco) - how she stands up to him in a way other women won’t, which he finds sexy, and how he absorbs her into a life of glamour and violence, which she finds exciting. Consequently, we comprehend why they stick together through thick and thin. Mollie and Ernest, on the other hand, get to flirt a little, then make out a little, and then they’re in love and married. DiCaprio and Gladstone have an easy chemistry - you certainly buy them as a couple - but given that Mollie stands by Ernest’s side long after it becomes apparent that he’s up to no good, it would have been helpful to understand what, exactly, she saw in her husband in the first place (or, for that matter, why she was so chill about one sister marrying another sister’s widower).
Even Christopher Cote, the Osage man who taught Gladstone to speak the language, has expressed ambivalence regarding the film spotlighting its white oppressors over its Native victims:
“As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart… I think that’s because this film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage.”
So why DOES Scorsese make this movie about the white guys?
I believe there are three reasons.
The first is that Scorsese likely felt uncomfortable making Mollie the protagonist of the movie because he is himself not of Indigenous descent, and felt that he was therefore unqualified to speak on her behalf.
The second is betrayed in Cote’s quote above: “This film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody.” There’s an assumption, be it correct or not, that white people simply would not see this film if there weren’t other white people prominently featured on the poster.
The third is a harsh truth that is, in and of itself, rooted in illiberality: There’s almost no way Killers of the Flower Moon would have gotten made without Scorsese, DiCaprio, and De Niro’s names above the title. There is not, at present, an Indigenous filmmaker who could have procured the necessary resources from a major studio to produce this movie. That obviously speaks to the fact that white people have been giving one another a leg up for as long as anyone can remember - I’m sure there are Indigenous filmmakers who would like to have made the movie - and as I said, KotFM is a story which certainly needs to be told, regardless of who is telling it.
This creates an issue with no easy solution, other than to hope that some studio would have taken a massive gamble on a relatively-unproven filmmaker, which major studios rarely, if ever, do (unless you’re talking about a Marvel movie, which, commercially speaking, isn’t nearly so much of a gamble as KotFM). Personally, I would still have preferred to see a version of the movie where Mollie was the star, especially given that the strongest performances all come from Indigenous actors - Gladstone, of course, but also Cara Jade Myers, as her most rambunctious sister, William Belleau, as her alcoholic cousin, Tantoo Cardinal, as her judgmental mother, and Everett Waller, projecting quiet-but-strong authority as a tribal elder. And it’s not as though Scorsese hasn’t made movies about people who don’t look like him before (see: Kundun). But maybe that just didn’t feel tenable in the current political environment.
Scorsese’s Band-Aid is to stuff the movie full of as much detail as possible - there is a good amount of time devoted to the Osage’s culture and spiritual practices. But it’s haphazardly shoved in with the are myriad plot points Scorsese needs to include so that the story will make sense (e.g., a sequence in which an Osage assaults a white guy he believes is sleeping with his wife - it’s there purely to justify a later sequence, where Hale tries to pin the Osage’s murder on the white guy who got beat up). This results in a film that is structurally wonky at best.
In fact, Scorsese acknowledges the film’s shortcomings, and the way in which he and his audience alike are complicit in those shortcomings, via a brief, already much-discussed coda. That’s both ethically noble and bound to incite a lot of important conversations around the topic how we represent, and therefore interpret, American history… but it doesn’t actually fix those shortcomings, now, does it?
All of this must make it sound as though I hated Killers of the Flower Moon. Nothing could be further from the case. I do, however, think it’s kind of a mess, a movie worthy of respect and admiration more than accolades for its craft. It is a triumph of meaning over form; it’s an important story, if not a well-told one.
Maybe, in cases such as this one, that’s enough. I’m honestly not sure. One overwhelmingly positive thing I can say about the film is that I’ve been thinking about it constantly in the days since I saw it, and I suspect I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. That may be the highest compliment anyone can pay any work of art, ever.