The Aisle Seat: Killers of the Flower Moon
In which a casting choice and a shift in emphasis causes an important film by a master to just miss its target
A eighty-years old, with over fifty years in the business and over forty films to his credit, Martin Scorsese is still the master among masters. As nonagenarian Clint Eastwood put it beautifully, he’s “kept the old man from getting in.” No director of our time has so corralled such a wide ranch of interests into a unique array of films. For all his encyclopedic knowledge of film, his work continues to feel fresh and never derivative. Most movies nowadays feel like pale copies, but Scorsese, despite his great erudition, has avoided the sterile trap of post-modernism to make films that, at their best, burn bright with life.
Scorsese’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, plays more like a collaboration than his other work. The film is an ambitious and somber adaptation of David Grann’s superb true-crime book about the Osage Indian Murders, an appalling string of homicides that took place in early 1920s Oklahoma. While it resembles Scorsese’s other crime classics, notably Goodfellas and The Irishman, its time and place also make it the closest he’s likely to come to making a Western.
Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film opens with a discovery, a hinge moment that portends a future both epic and dark. We first meet the Osage, all but prisoners on their reservation in Northeastern Oklahoma, as they’re conducting a solemn ceremony to mourn the passing of their world as the white man’s culture absorbs them.
But suddenly, as their mourning cries grow louder, from seemingly barren ground, rises not a black monolith but a geyser of black gold — oil! As the black rain falls around them, the Osage celebrate with a kind of rain dance. Suddenly, they’re rich, their new found wealth offering a chance to beat back the conqueror’s efforts to erase them from the earth.
At first, it feels like a cosmic joke on the whites who pushed the Osage onto the reservation in the first place, thinking they’d just fade away. By the early 1920s, the royalties earned from oil leases have made the Osage the richest people in the world. But good fortune can always be turned on the fortunate. Their wealth has lifted them from poverty but has also further severed them from their traditions, the anchor of their tribal spirit.
To worsen matters, they’re not the ones holding their own purse strings. The power usually associated with wealth is wielded by others. As Native people, they’re under the allegedly benevolent supervision of the Bureau of Indians Affairs, which “manages” their money in a trust. The Osage, like all indigenous tribes, are officially deemed “incompetent,” and must declare themselves as such as they’re undergo a humiliating protocol to access what’s theirs, access which could be denied for any reason.
Each Osage reservation family holds shares in the oil rights. The heads of these families are granted “headrights,” making them the primary heirs so the wealth stays within the tribe ... but for one crucial loophole that provides inheritance rights to any non-native outsider who marries into the family.
Even in the 1920s, Oklahoma still smells of the Wild West: Only the most primitive notions of law and order apply. Most law officers are amateurish, incompetent, corrupt, or all three, with a thick layer of racism on top. Holding so much wealth while living in a relatively remote part of the country, the Osage, already at a built-in disadvantage, become easy targets for the villains descending on their world.
It’s a tangled landscape, but the script, by Scorsese and Eric Roth, makes the outlines clear enough. With those set, the film directs us from the general to the particular as Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I rear-echelon veteran, drifts into the brawling oil town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, located on the Osage Reservation. At first Burkhart looks like another feckless roustabout, until a chauffeur suddenly appears and escorts him out to a large ranch that sits ominously at the edge of vast oil fields, like Dracula’s castle.
The king of this castle is Burkhart’s uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), self-nicknamed “King” to reflect his own appraisal as the most powerful rancher in the Osage County hills. His craggy bespectacled face twinkles with a grandpa’s benevolence. He’s spent years building a reputation with the Osage as their most loyal white benefactor, establishing schools and hospitals on their behalf, learning their language, and participating in their tribal meetings.
But as he gives with one hand, Hale steals ruthlessly with the other. Behind his folksy facade lies a cold, scheming crime king who recruits his nephew in his plans to tighten his criminal grip on the Osage and everyone around. Hale slowly presses his thumb down on Ernest, patiently working on his nephew’s pliability and ignorance. Their first meeting has a similar flavor to The Irishman, as the pair carefully dance around Hale’s expectations regarding his grateful, if slow-witted, nephew. A low, quiet voice, as De Niro above all knows, can make any crime sound reasonable.
Ernest becomes one of Hale’s most valuable henchmen, committing a variety of crimes against the Osage. As part of the scheme, Ernest becomes a taxi driver and makes himself the favored cabbie of Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), who, along with her mother and three sisters, is one of the wealthiest heirs to the Osage oil fortune. Mollie and her family disdain Ernest as a “coyote,” a scavenger out for their money. But Kyle absorbs their scorn as he successfully works his charms on Mollie, seducing her into marriage and stepping right in line to inherit Mollie’s headrights when that time comes.
That time soon arrives. With Ernest in place, Mollie is now a marked woman. Hale and his thugs pick the Kyles and their relations off by ones, twos and threes, in a series of slow poisonings and shootings of her sisters and anyone else standing in the way. The deaths occur at an alarming and suspicious rate — finally culminating in a dynamite blast that kills Mollie’s last surviving sister, her husband, and their housekeeper.
Hale has gone way too far, but in his calculating mind, they’re only Indians, so who’s going to care, especially way out in the middle of nowhere? Meanwhile, Ernest, trusting and fearing his Uncle King (who’s not above spanking his nephew with a large paddle as punishment), starts falling in love with Mollie as he slowly poisons her, the substance slipped in with her diabetes shots.
Like The Irishman, Killers is what’s nowadays called “slow cinema.” At three-and-half hours, it unfolds deliberately, evenly, and hypnotically, the pace set by Scorsese’s legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It’s never boring, not for a minute, and yet, as the climax approaches, the pace stays in low gear, failing to quicken with suspense or mounting horror as Hale closes his web around Mollie and her family, and we anxiously watch to see if someone — anyone — will stand up and do something.
It’s as superb a production as you’d expect from a Scorsese film. Rodrigo Prieto’s color cinematography, using specially designed lenses, sets the right mood for every scene with the appropriate tints and tones; the score, supervised by the late Robbie Robertson, knits together indigenous music, western music and 1920s pop to underscore the drama’s overlapping cultural conflicts, creating a haunting sound tapestry where past, present, and future weave together. Jack Fisk’s production design, done with the close cooperation of the Osage, captures the flavor of 1920s Oklahoma to a degree rarely seen in historically based films.
Politics and racism are thematic centers of this grim story, yet I never once felt lectured at. The script skillfully dramatizes the issues as arising from the characters, their history, and their environment. There’s no finger wagging. It’s all there. The characters, especially the Osage, speak not as mouthpieces for the writers but as individuals. We’re asked to listen, so we do.
The performances are mostly excellent. Lily Gladstone is the standout as Mollie Burkhart. Gladstone’s remarkable face glows with winsomeness, wisdom, kindness, along with a moving innocence, making Molly into someone we root for. She dominates every moment she’s in. A great career awaits. (Scorsese has commented he cast her because of how she reminded him of Olivia de Havilland. You’ll see his point exactly.)
De Niro is of course masterful as William Hale, playing a rural Godfather, kindly on the outside, a dead-hearted bastard on the inside, coolly reveling in his power as he carries out his campaign of theft and murder with self-destructive aplomb. His every smile hides an evil glimmer. As it is with all great villains, it’s a pleasure to watch him go down, his arrogance mocked.
But with Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart things sag a little, at least for me because, well ... he’s Leonardo. I might well be dead inside myself, but I’ve never found him compelling. Even his earnest effort here fails to change my mind, which in part explains some of my dissatisfaction.
Killers has been criticized for being too long, but it could be longer. David Grann’s book examines four main facets in its account of the Osage murders: The Osage people and their oil, William Hale’s scheming, Ernest and Mollie’s marriage, and most significantly, the initially diffident involvement of federal law enforcement, in the days when the FBI was known only as the Bureau of Investigation, the agents carried no weapons, and the whole organization could fit inside a small mansion.
The film sticks admirably close to historical facts as related in Grann’s book, allowing for some telescoping of events along with some recombining of characters. The script originally focused on the federal investigators but, at DiCaprio’s insistence and worried that they were creating another “white savior” scenario, Scorsese and Roth shifted their attention to the Osage and Hale. Under the time limits of theatrical feature filmmaking, the pursuit of Hale by real-life federal agent Tom White (a blank-faced Jesse Plemons) feels rushed. A multi-part streaming series would have provided room to fill that gap.
Scorsese and Roth were right to refocus under the circumstances, but they still seem to miss their target. The film spends much of its time with Hale’s and Ernest’s crimes, a place well within Scorsese’s comfort zone, a territory occupied by The Irishman and especially Goodfellas, once Hale starts eliminating his henchmen as the law closes in.
The pleasure of seeing racist bullies and murderers run to earth is undeniable but I seldom felt that satisfying surge, both gleeful and grim. It may be the film spends too little time with Mollie Burkhart and her people--because that’s where its true heart lies--and too much with Hale and Ernest. Making them the focus, having us seeing it primarily through Mollie’s eyes as she’s downing in a rising tide of terror, might have made a difference.
Allow me to point to an old Hollywood classic: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), a grandly ambiguous mystery thriller about a seemingly murderous husband. That film may be based on pure pulp fiction, but it provides some clues in how things might have turned out differently in the much more serious Killers of the Flower Moon.
Lily Gladstone should stand right beside Suspicion’s Joan Fontaine in gaining our sympathy as doom closes in around her and her people--especially considering the film’s real-life circumstances. Unfortunately, DiCaprio, the source of her fear, is no Cary Grant.
Suspicion is seen solely through Joan Fontaine’s eyes, leaving the question of whether Grant is a murderer a chilling mystery right to the end. As he seemingly plots his wife’s murder, Grant works his incredible charms and great humor, seducing the audience as thoroughly as he does Fontaine.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, DiCaprio should seduce both Mollie and us with the same flair; we should want him to not be a murderer, to wake up, stop what he’s doing, and get on the right side. But I’ve always found DiCaprio too dull to care about much either way. His soft exterior makes him unable to express both the grubby charm and pathos sometimes found in criminals. We never feel the strong bond between the couple. With DiCaprio as her leading man, Gladstone is left hugging an empty space.
Justice is only partially satisfied as the somber end approaches. Instead of the usual epilogue title summing up the aftermath, Scorsese twists our expectations by recreating an actual old-time 1930s radio broadcast that that cheesily dramatizes the case, casting himself as producer and narrator. It’s an enigmatic moment. Is Scorsese expressing feelings of inadequacy in his recreation of this terrible episode, admitting that everything we saw before is by no means real but only a reproduction? Is he commenting on how popular art distorts everything it touches?
As we’re left puzzling, the final moment is a powerful nod to the Osage with an overhead shot of a dancing circle. Here the idea is absolutely clear: Indigenous people are still here and they’re never going away.
Thomas Burchfield’s short story “McCain, the Stranger” is in the online version of Mystery Tribune. His article “Noir or Not?: Straw Dogs” is in the current issue of Noir City magazine. A freelance editor, he’s also the author of the short story “Lucky Day” in the anthology Berkeley Noir (Akashic Press 2020), He’s also the author of Butchertown (Ambler House 2017), a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller and the award-winning contemporary vampire novel Dragon’s Ark.