Wolves are not subtle creatures. It’s a rhetorical question: “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” Who couldn’t spot wolves among humans? They’re much smaller than people, much growlier. They have a vicious appetite and care only about satisfying it. What they lack in tact they make up in blunt aggression, tearing their victims apart limb-by-limb and leaving a blood-stained trail of evidence to prove it. They’re indignant, not the most intelligent, and they don’t speak the language. But that’s where William Hale differs: he speaks the language.
Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon makes no mistake about who is at the center of its tragedy: the Osage Nation. Shot primarily on location on the reservation in Oklahoma, the film opens and closes with Osage ceremonies, one mourning death and the other celebrating life, in that order. The story in-between, however, takes the opposite arc, tracing some of Scorsese’s most memorable characters through a period of gut-wrenching prosperity that was always bound to rot.
To familiarize us with the history of the Osage and the bloodthirsty, money-grubbing white men around them, Scorsese squeezes the frame down to a 4:3 aspect ratio and thrusts us into an old-timey black-and-white film montage cut with intertitles of information, per the days when the lack of sound required it. To ease out of the montage, Scorsese widens back to a 2.39:1 frame, dollies down the center of a train, and slowly fades the color from grainy black-and-white to the muted grays and browns of the working folk on the train, upon which sits our dopey pawn of a lead, Ernest Burkhart.
In prime Scorsese fashion, Killers unpacks the barbarous epidemic through the eyes of the career criminals that sloppily executed it, honing in on the deceit of two men: William “Bill” Hale (Robert De Niro), the wizened architect of it all, and his nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio). “Don’t call me ‘sir.’ Call me ‘King,’” Bill tells Ernest when he arrives. “Um, King? Okay…” he replies in humble confusion. “Yeah, King!” There’s no good reason for it. It’s just a blatant grab for power where Bill can get it. I repeat: wolves are not subtle.
The co-lead, and the spiritual and emotional core of the film, is Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone in a triumphant return), the Osage woman who trusted and married Ernest while he, his brother Byron (an odious Scott Shepherd), and King systematically murdered her family. Mollie is wise and grounded, the only person who can inspire a temporary conscience in Ernest. And the two really love each other. She knows the white man is in it for the money, but she thinks that’s just a small part of it. And Ernest isn’t a threat––he lives and works with King, who both loves the Osage and is already a wealthy cattle rancher that wouldn’t need more wealth.
She’s too in love to see that Ernest is treacherously excited by violence, speed, and most of all money––like King, who will do literally anything under the sun to procure Osage headrights. (Well, he won’t do it himself, but he’ll hire someone to do it.) Mollie underestimates the sheer depravity of Ernest, King, and company, how devoted the buzzards circling her community are to profit over people. Until she begins to realize: “The evil surrounding my heart comes out through my eyes.”
The whole shoddily implemented plan to kill for money is what the two-faced King calls a good business deal, and he doesn’t beat around the bush. From the get-go he tells Ernest exactly what the plan is with a smile on his face. But Ernest, like Jordan Belfort, sees no evil if there’s money in the picture. That’s just capitalism, a free market. Moreover, there’s no risk of consequence because King has all the governing white men in his pocket.
1920s Fairfax might be Osage territory, the Indigenous owning most of the land and wealth. But when it’s governed by vapidly vengeful whites, who really holds the power? According to those in the film, it’s the kind of place where you have a better chance at getting booked for kicking a dog than killing an Osage.
King knows the murders won’t be investigated or aptly labeled. He’s buds with the coroners who seem to have a fetish for dismembering bodies of color, much less burying evidence. Same goes for the judges and lawyers. The police are, well, the police, so that’s a dead end. And if that’s not protection enough, King is the reserve sheriff of Fairfax if anything were to happen to the current one, which King would undoubtedly figure out if he needed to.
To their face, King––a model citizen in the integration of life with Indigenous cultures on paper––praises the Osage people and they love him for it. One of the only white men allowed in their community council meetings, he mourns their losses alongside them and shouts Indigenous prayers with the pain of the Osage in his voice and the fluency of someone who has learned the culture inside and out. He calls them “the most beautiful people on Earth,” and the camera immediately calls his bluff, cutting to a murder montage of hits he’s taken out on the wealthiest of the Osage Nation just to overstuff his pockets.
The dialogue-heavy screenplay marks Scorsese’s first since Silence, penned alongside Eric Roth––the brilliant screenwriter most notably behind The Insider, more popularly Forrest Gump and Dune. There’s a grand irony in who’s calling who “savage” that shines as bright as the sun over the sprawling screenplay. It manifests in myriad ways: the community-centric mind of the Osage people in contrast to the greedy, capitalistic approach of the whites; the humanity of the Osage against the animality of the whites, a fullness of spirit against a voracious, insatiable hunger.
Or in minute details, the difference between Ernest’s jagged-brown teeth and Mollie’s pearly whites stands out, as does the contrast between the soulful burial rituals of the Osage and the whites’ tendency to shit on that by digging the bodies back up and stripping them of jewels. One could even compare the cold, shiny self-importance of the Masonic Lodge, in which King gives Ernest some very hard spankings, to the warm, natural lounge that houses the Osage community meetings.
Robbie Robertson’s score (his fourth for Scorsese over 41 years) is par for the Robertson course––bluesy harmonicas wailing, twangy dobro guitars sliding around, and other old country acoustics chugging along to the pace of an industrial steam train. It’s ever-present and can work brilliantly, but it doesn’t always sparkle. For so much of the film it hovers like a whisper in the sound design, more a hushed distraction underneath the scene than a mood-setter.
Rodrigo Prieto––Scorsese’s regular DP since the two struck gold on The Wolf of Wall Street––captures the Osage Nation in breathtaking fashion: gaping, flourishing landscapes with rolling green hills and jackknife oil rigs as far as the eye can see. So many shots play like paintings or portraits. Take, for instance, the already-iconic shot of the suits scheming in the shadows of the court, to which the trailer repeats the wolf question. Or FBI men sharing intel around their cars, nearly frozen in their poses, the sunset barely visible on the horizon in a dim burst of color.
It’s interesting that when you zoom out on the Osage land, this is what you see. But when you zoom in it’s not covered in oil rigs, which are quite far apart. When you zoom in it’s covered in tiny purple and white flowers, the kind of flowers that blend together to give the Flower Moon its namesake. And there are infinitely more of them than oil rigs.
There’s not as much Jesse Plemons as folks might expect, but in what feels like a breezy three-and-a-half hour runtime, he still gets nearly a feature’s worth. He enters with 80-90 minutes left and does little more than poke at the obvious in his hospitably Southern interrogations, the arrogance and sinister naivete of those he’s investigating obvious to him on day one. Needless to say, it’s perfect casting.
Last but certainly not least, Killers has the most fun postscript sequence of Scorsese’s career, perhaps in film history altogether. But oddly enough, it only lands in concept. It doesn’t really get the information across. The entertainment of it all is too distracting, except for a performance delivered with so much heart that it drew me back in, only the sound of voices audible as a tear rolled down my cheek in the final seconds. Martin Scorsese triumphs yet again.
Killers of the Flower Moon debuted at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and will enter a limited release on October 6, followed by an October 20 wide release.