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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Killers of the Flower Moon // Film Review

“And chauffeurs to do their bidding…”

In a 2015 essay, Jason Stanley described propaganda as a flawed ideology encouraged and shared by societal elites: “to explain their possession of an unjust amount of the goods of society.” Effective propaganda is targeted messaging towards people who, on some level, already want to believe it is true. In the works of Martin Scorsese, this has historically worked both for and against him; nowadays it almost seems that for every audience member repulsed by Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort, there is another who sees their portrayal as a lifestyle endorsement. As Scorsese himself said about our modern times, somewhat glibly, “it’s a norm that every other person is like Travis Bickle.”

In adapting Killers of the Flower Moon, originally a 2017 book from David Grann documenting the origin of the FBI and their persecution of the criminals who butchered hundreds of Osage people, Scorsese’s choice of viewpoint was always going to be a paramount issue. Initially, the film was to be told from the perspective of lawman Tom White, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the gallant leading role, however after several meetings with the Osage community, Scorsese decided to reorient it around the ostensible love story between the native Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and her crooked husband Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio). Unbeknownst to Mollie, Ernest is involved in a scheme led by his uncle William Hale (Robert DeNiro), to wed and kill Osage women for inherited wealth, a scheme which costs her unthinkable pain over the film's gruelling 200+ minute runtime.

Much has been made of Scorsese’s choice to make Ernest, a repugnant and dim-witted man responsible for countless murders, the surrogate character for his audience coming into Flower Moon. Worthy points on its effectiveness have been made on both sides by people infinitely more knowledgeable than myself, though it seems probable that Scorsese’s reasoning is tightly linked to Stanley’s ideas of propaganda. A telling sequence early in the film sees several 4:3, black and white recreations of silent pictures depicting the Osage people as a powerful and prosperous nation while similarly othering them for a white audience with lines like that quoted at the top of this article. Intercut with these are several wide, contemporary shots of their corpses laid alone on cold beds. Narrating this is Mollie, who solemnly announces their deaths with the words: “there was no investigation.”

The contrast here is pointed; cinema, the medium which Scorsese loves more than perhaps any living person, has always had a tendency to sugarcoat those atrocities which are not personal to its primary white audience. Midway through the film, long after the killings have begun, Hale and Burkhart watch footage from the Tulsa Riots in a cinema with the same passive interest one might feel watching a Universal monster movie. These films feed them the tools with which to view world history on the easiest possible terms; Ernest Burkhart does genuinely believe himself a good husband, father and working man. During a transaction with a hired killer early in the film, he remarks: “I love money, almost as much as I love my wife.” Despite this, Scorsese takes care to implicate him as often as possible, with several of the film’s most brutal kill scenes including Burkhart in the role of an extra, hidden at the edges of the frame; a hired hand with the face of a movie star.

Of course, the true movie star performance at the heart of Flower Moon is Lily Gladstone, a Native American actress with just a few prior credits to her name, poised now to earn an Oscar nomination (and likely win) early next year for her efforts here. As a woman who draws power from awkward silences which make anxious men blather, Gladstone’s performance is an ever-expanding web of ticks and micro-expressions, communicating everything about her feelings about Ernest, the state of her Osage community and her position with just a few choice words in any given scene. It isn’t the most inviting performance - Mollie evokes our sympathies, but Ernest is unmistakably the one guiding us through this story - yet the contrast of her raw and unencumbered presence against the theatrics of clowns like Ernest and Hale only emphasises the preposterousness of their evil, ensuring it remains entirely unjustifiable on screen to anyone but them.

That clownishness is something Scorsese has played with throughout his career, literally in The King of Comedy but also in Mean Streets, Goodfellas and most recently The Irishman, which took the high-flying, nihilistic gangster life to its natural conclusion; a quiet and paranoid death alone in an upmarket nursing home. The titular Irishman in that film was as complicit as Ernest is in Flower Moon; a family man enamoured with the power fantasy of criminality, who can’t quite make the connection between his actions and their consequences even when it costs him his loved ones.

There is a sense in these later Scorsese films that the now eighty-year-old director has reappraised these works with a sober eye, being more interested now in the complicit ignorance of so-called powerful men who found ways to make even the most reprehensible acts forgivable. Killers of the Flower Moon is absolutely a film about the tragedies that befell the Osage people, but it is similarly an exercise in what it takes to become the likes of Henry Hill, Jordan Belfort and any number of wise guys who chose to live like fools.

Killers of the Flower Moon cannot, by nature of its background, be the definitive story of the Osage people - that responsibility should instead fall to a Native American filmmaker - however it is perhaps the most essential telling of this history for a white audience. Scorsese has constructed a very deliberate trap for the unsuspecting viewer, casting the twin muses of his filmography - DiCaprio and DeNiro - as two of the more despicable men in American history, then asking us to follow their stories anyway.

Again and again, cinema has made it easy to celebrate any number of historical figures for choice accomplishments, and one could clearly imagine a version of this story which positions Ernest, still played by DiCaprio, as the one good man who realised all too late his uncle’s nefarious plot, yet Scorsese has crafted Flower Moon in such a way as to make that reading utterly impossible. Ernest and his uncle are here portrayed as such an extreme personification of evil that it could almost make you laugh, at least until that unforgettable, devastating grace note at the film's tail which reminds us so pointedly that anyone, even those who should know better, can fall for those same tricks if they'll help our collective conscience rest just a bit easier.


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