Tuesday, October 17, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”

“They told me not to do any heavy lifting,” Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), referring to a chronic stomach injury sustained in the war. The aptly-named King assures his nephew that he has little to worry about in Osage country, the stretch of Oklahoma pasture to which the United States government forced the eponymous Native American nation some years earlier. If he plays his cards right and stays out of trouble, says King, he won’t be doing much labor at all. Good-looking white men like Ernest have a tendency to prosper among the Osage, whom the government has officially deemed too “incompetent” to handle their own oil wealth. Instead, they’re assigned guardians, stewards, white men who dictate when and how the Osage get to spend their fortunes. King, well, he informally oversees these transactions, ensures that the money flows where it ought to. He’s a friend to the Osage, he insists — he speaks their language fluently — but, like his nephew, he’s not exactly interested in heavy lifting.
Instead, King runs the rackets, deputizing Ernest and his brother, Bryan (Scott Shepherd), in all manner of fraudulent schemes designed to separate the Osage from their aforementioned windfall. They didn’t know they’d be forced onto oil-rich land, King insists; they didn’t work for it. Didn’t earn it. They happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that time is coming to an end. The Osage are a sickly people, after all, unfit for life in the twentieth century. King and his crew are simply facilitators of a foregone conclusion: Take Mollie (Lily Gladstone), the flinty Osage beauty Ernest soon takes to wife. Her diabetes will kill her. It’s inevitable. King sees no great injustice in engineering a plot that’ll send her headrights his way. It’s a white man’s nation, he convinces himself, one far too complex for the Osage to fully appreciate. He’s doing them a service. This is God’s will. Ernest, who lacks the wherewithal to challenge his uncle, is more than happy to ride shotgun right up until the moment Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons) catches wind.

Based on the 2017 book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon is a Western that only Martin Scorsese could commit to film, a pastoral dripping with urban decay, a brutal indictment of American entrepreneurial ambition that reckons with our original sins while mourning the wisdom and resolve of a community that had no choice but to accept its place in the Grand Injustice. The Osage of Flower Moon are no rubes; They’re not bewitched, ensorcelled, or entranced. Mollie, for example, is fully aware of her husband’s ulterior motives: He’s a coyote. A scavenger. A shiftless grifter who is about as useful as a hole in the head. But Mollie is only human, only — if not legally — American; Why shouldn’t she indulge, too? Why shouldn’t she look to the future, when the white and native men will share in the wealth of this great nation? Hardly the Proud Indian of American cinematic obscurity, Mollie would never kowtow to condescension. Instead, she tests the system. Feels it out. Like her husband, though, she’s just a pawn who can only hope to play at royalty.

Martin Scorsese’s last theatrical release — the elegiac The Irishman — felt like his final word on the gangster genre he helped shepherd across sixty years of cinema. That film’s Frank Sheeran (also De Niro) was a guileless brute who could barely comprehend the true depth of his sins, let alone properly atone for them. DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart is cut from a similar cloth, a hapless lush whose savage betrayal of his family is motivated more by incompetence than by any devious designs; Ernest is a personification of the Great American Presumption, the edict that mandated the white man’s superiority without offering evidence or justification for its conclusions. Neither he nor any of King’s other foot soldiers could possibly have masterminded what newspapers would call the Reign of Terror, the systematic murder of significant Osage stakeholders that — had King been successful — would have put their headrights exclusively in his pocket. For them, committing these acts of great, unassailable evil was simply walking the path of least resistance.
DiCaprio, no stranger to roles that mix dimwitted ambivalence with righteous indignation, delivers a performance that is masterful not in its theatricality, but instead in its deference; Despite pulling strings and strong-arming fellow scumbags, Ernest is a passenger on this journey, a detail for which the star himself apparently advocated. Early drafts of Flower Moon put DiCaprio in the Tom White role, the earnest lawman working to unravel a vast conspiracy. Not only did that fail to embrace DiCaprio’s strengths as an actor, but it robbed Flower Moon of its emotional core: Ernest and Mollie. This brings us to Lily Gladstone, unequivocally Flower Moon’s brightest star. The breakout of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Gladstone is a gifted and versatile actor who conveys more with a sideways glance than most can with reams of Sorkinian verbiage. Her Mollie is five feet smarter than anyone else on the reservation, but a young lifetime of betrayal, discrimination, and heartbreak has made her wary and cynical. She’s well aware of King’s corruption; her only aim is to survive it.
There’s little sense in offering a critical analysis of Scorsese’s construction, pacing, or mise en scene: Killers of the Flower Moon is exemplary filmmaking, as miraculously energetic and richly observed as anything the octogenarian maestro produced in his prime. More, even, as its standout final movement breaks through the conventions of cinematic storytelling to add an entirely new — and staggeringly self-aware — wrinkle to this tale of inhuman exploitation. As ever, Scorsese is preoccupied with our moral failings and the pathetic justifications we offer in hopes of absolution. To Marty, we’re all sinners in the hands of an angry god, and it’s only by accepting the truth of those deficiencies that we may start to cleanse the sharp and jagged darkness within. Until we do, we’re damned to the same fates as Ernest Burkhart, Henry Hill, and Jordan Belfort: Stuck in a vile spiritual limbo that blinds us to the love we are too clumsy and self-centered to ever appreciate. If nothing else, Flower Moon is proof that Scorsese intends to chip away at that darkness for as long as he possibly can.

Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters Friday, October 20th.


  1. While i'm not a fan of the lenght, i'm a fan of Scorcese (who isn't?)

    Can't wait to see this

  2. Great review, and I haven't seen the flick yet but am so looking forward to it. I particularly like the description "hapless lush". I have several friends with Abenaki heritage and I brought this movie up to them. I am a very white dude. They respectfully declined to watch it with me, saying they already got the story, didn't need to see it pretended.