In Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” killers do not hide in plain sight. They parade around in painfully transparent, boastful and egregious ways without a shred of remorse. Bolstered by the systemic disregard of indigenous lives under white colonialism, these wolves do not need to wear sheep’s clothing; rather, they comfortably exhibit their greedy, despicable nature.
Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, “Killers” examines the gruesome murders of the Osage people in the 1920s following the discovery of oil under their land. The Osage became among the richest people per capita in the world, and with that, the white man’s envy. Scorsese creates a heartbreakingly vivid rendering of the Osage “Reign of Terror” Murders, where white men calmly committed violent atrocities, including nonchalantly murdering their Osage spouses to inherit their wealth.
“Killers” is undeniably a film about evil — don’t prepare for a whodunit surprise. The film centers on Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who embodies a flagrant combination of greed and laziness. Upon his return to Osage County, he marries an Osage woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and becomes a key perpetrator of the widespread exploitation and murder of the Osage at the behest of his unctuous crime-boss uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). Scorsese’s legendary career has handed us plenty of bad guys, but what distinguishes Hale and Ernest is their unmistakable cruelty, undisguised from the start.
De Niro captures Hale’s reign of terror with a spine-chilling performance of friendly malice. Hale inserts himself into Osage causes through knowledge of their language and customs. Seeming to genuinely believe himself to be their greatest benefactor, Hale’s entitlement is the driving force behind his murderous regime, making his evil all the more disconcerting. There are no evil masterminds in “Killers.” The white settlers are portrayed as banal hooligans; their insatiable greed and undisguised cruelty are not as horrifying as their erringly commonplace terror.
Although the morally conflicted gangster is a common archetype in Scorsese’s crime films, “Killers” rightfully deviates from this pattern. Scorsese does not try to induce audience empathy through unreliable narration as present in, say, “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas.” “No investigation,” Mollie recites to successive depictions of untimely Osage deaths. “Death by suicide,” she somberly declares, as we are shown an Osage woman evidently murdered in cold blood. “Killers” uses narration from multiple perspectives meticulously and sparingly, but it is at its most effective when demonstrating the disconnect between the official (white person’s) account of the Osage murders with what the Osage know to be true: that their people are being systematically slaughtered and exploited with impunity.
“Killers” is a pretty loose adaptation of the book, which engages strongly with Mollie’s character, the Osage people and the rise of the FBI. Although the earlier version of Scorsese’s screenplay centered around the federal agent who led the investigation of the Osage murders, Tom White, Scorsese told Time magazine that he didn’t want the film to become yet another white savior story, “a movie about all the white guys.” He diverged from this outside-in approach, hiring Osage crew to depict their culture in precisely authentic ways, down to the threads in their extravagant and beautiful garments.
Scorsese’s new frame of focus — Mollie and Ernest’s love story — is a divisive angle. In both real life and the film, Ernest marries Mollie, murders many of her family members, and engages in a plot to kill her before the FBI finally intervene. And still, their relationship is portrayed as complicated. Is it really fair to center the Osage murders around a tricky, but loving marriage? Does Scorsese succumb to his favorite trope of the misunderstood criminal? In trying to render the emotions of Ernest’s love sincerely, Scorsese allots him the majority of the film’s gargantuan runtime, meaning that, throughout “Killers,” we’re put in a room with an avaricious, aggravatingly malleable man, and without an accompanying love story, he would be an evidently boring tool.
With a $200 million budget and full rights to the book, Scorsese intentionally decided to tell the Osage story from the perspective of their murderers. Within that choice, he does a lot right. In “Killers,” Scorsese holds up a mirror for white society to see their complicity in the systematic abuse of Indigenous people. However, although his choice to center on De Niro and DiCaprio’s characters successfully emphasizes their evil nature, it robs Mollie and other Osage of the agency and full character arcs they deserve.
At several points in the film, Scorsese recognizes his own complicity as a white man telling a story about Osage history. An illustrated book introduces the Osage people through Hale’s narration, and the epilogue of “Killers” catapults us into an entertainment program cheerfully telling the Osage tragedy while advertising: “don’t forget, light up with lucky strikes!” In a flash, the ghastly, ominous tone present throughout the film is replaced by a cheerful, family-friendly radio show, with an all-white cast narrating the devastating, unjust fates of the movie’s historical figures. Working within the self-conscious framework of a caring observer, Scorsese distances himself from developing a fully fledged Osage perspective. This is not to say “Killers” is not worth the watch — it is yet another one of Scorsese’s daring works of great beauty and terror.
Historically, white men have been given platforms to present palatable versions of their fictitious heroism. Indigenous people have not had the same luck. “Killers” intentionally acknowledges this very problem, commenting on the entertainment value of tragedy and suffering. But if entertainment can sustain, and is something that has depth, then a step forward can be made. With “Killers,” Scorsese ensures that the Osage story does not get lost to history, commanding us to confront the sins of America’s past through a stirring and tremendous master stroke.