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Dan Webster reviews "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Film still of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).
Killers of the Flower Moon, Appian Way/Apple Studios/Imperative Ent./Sikelia Prod./Paramount Pictures, 2023.
Film still of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).


Martin Scorsese has always been known for the violence in his films. Think of the final scene of Mean Streets. Think of the murder of Billy Batts in Goodfellas. Think of Travis Bickle’s rampage in Taxi Driver. Think of The Departed. Of Raging Bull.

Yet Scorsese is equally known for the passion he brings to whatever subject he’s driven to explore. His lifetime struggle with his Catholic upbringing has imbued some of the films just mentioned, but, more explicitly, has resulted in his making a number of films that explore questions of spirituality and faith—chiefly among them Silence, Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ.

Passion, in fact, is a major marker of a Scorsese film, along with as skilled a touch for cinematic narrative as anyone has ever possessed. And all of his expertise is on display in his most recent film, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Based on David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, Scorsese’s film is a representation of a particularly dark episode in American history. While Scorsese makes the usual adjustments to enhance what filmmakers refer to as “dramatic effect,” he and co-screenwriter Eric Roth adhere—for the most part—to actual events.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Ernest Burkhart, a World War I veteran who we meet as he arrives in Oklahoma on a train. He’s there to get help from his uncle, William “King” Hale (played by Robert De Niro), an area rancher and—seemingly—an all-around altruist and friend of the local Osage tribe.

Not particularly bright, and unable to do physical labor due to some sort of abdominal problem, Ernest goes to work driving a cab. And it is while doing so that he encounters Molly, a proud and absurdly wealthy Osage woman (played by Lily Gladstone).

Wealth, of course, is what fuels the story that Grann’s book and Scorsese’s film strive to tell: through both a quirk of history, and some smart negotiating on the tribe’s part, they were able to profit from the kind of relocations forced on them and other indigenous peoples. Removed from their Kansas home to a barren, hilly section of what would become northern Oklahoma, the Osage elders were able both to purchase their reservation land and—more important—hold on to the area’s natural resource rights. So when oil was discovered, members of the Osage tribe became some of the richest people not just in America but the whole world.

Naturally enough, wealth attracts those who covet it. And pretty soon everyone from the federal government to your average working Joe was looking for a way to get their hands on what the Osage possessed. The government did so by declaring some full-blooded tribal members as “incompetent,” meaning they would have to have a paid guardian—almost always a white man—to okay their accessing their own money.

Individuals, on the other hand, could work their way toward the money by marrying into it, as Ernest did with Molly—the plan being if the tribal member were to die, and there were no other heirs, the husband—like Ernest—would get everything. And during the 1920s, that began to happen as a number of Osage began to die in ways that were either suspicious or clearly murder.

This begins to happen to Molly’s family, as one by one they begin to die. And Molly herself starts to fail, seemingly because of diabetes—even though she is given shots of what she is told is insulin that supposedly will heal her. Though much of Grann’s book focuses on the investigation that finally occurs, it being done by a team of detectives from an early version of the FBI, Scorsese and Roth decided to center on Ernest and Molly—on what for Molly is a love affair and for Ernest is the agonizing choices between love for a woman, love of money, and his faith in the dubious motives of his uncle.

DiCaprio is believable as Ernest, just as the masterful De Niro is as the devious “King” Hale. But it is Gladstone whose stoic performance as Molly commands the most attention—that, of course, and Scorsese’s unerring ability to capture an era both in its physical manifestation and in the aura of racist corruption that permeated through much of U.S. history. The violence of Killers of the Flower Moon, then, is as much a part of the American myth as the glory of the nation’s very founding, and it’s a tale that Scorsese tells with as much passion as he’s ever been able to put on the big screen.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for