by Rob DiCristino
“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.
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.
Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters Friday, October 20th.