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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Killers of the Flower Moon"

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

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

Violence has always been at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s work, but it’s possible he has never made a film as violent, as unforgiving, as anguished as Killers of the Flower Moon. It tells a true story of almost unfathomable evil—unfathomable not so much because it happened, but because of how it happened.

The film, based on a riveting nonfiction book by David Grann, tells of a period at the start of the 20th century known as the Reign of Terror, when members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma were murdered, one after the other. At the time, the Osage was one of the only Indigenous tribes in America to own land, and when oil was struck on their reservation, they became some of the wealthiest people in the country. But Congress deemed the Osage financially incompetent and assigned white guardians to control that wealth. As more white people embedded themselves into Osage families, more and more Osage people were killed, their land now up for grabs.

Killers of the Flower Moon begins in the shadow of the first World War, and it unfolds over a decade and three and a half hours, the heft of the film mirroring the scope of its horrors. Scorsese’s canvas is broad, but he narrows his dramatic focus to one Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a veteran who has come to Osage County to work for his ranching baron uncle, the self-appointed “King” William Hale (Robert De Niro).

Ernest meets and marries Mollie Kyle (the remarkable Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose large family has made a fortune on their oil headrights. He and Mollie settle down and have children, all while Ernest works as a cog in King Hale’s criminal empire. Hale, who is conveniently friendly with the wealthiest Osage families, is not the sort of man to have conversations; he holds court, and it only takes a couple meetings 'til he convinces Ernest that, were Mollie’s three sisters and their ailing mother to be out of the picture, Ernest and Mollie would inherit the wealth.

The white murderers of the Osage nation got away with their crimes for years, and not because they were criminal masterminds. Quite the opposite, in fact: they were sloppy and impulsive, so brazen they rarely covered their tracks. No, they got away with it because the power structures who could have intervened were themselves primed to benefit from the killings. When the FBI does finally arrive, it’s for a self-serving purpose, and even after there are convictions, there’s no solace, no relief, no justice—not really.

For the last couple decades, Scorsese has been preoccupied with our collective history of violence, and has explored in such films as Gangs of New York and The Irishman how organized crime is woven into our country’s DNA. Killers of the Flower Moon is a continuation of those themes, and though it is primarily a story of white supremacy and subjugation, it is also a story of complicity: To quote a chilling line that recently ran in a recent issue of the Osage News, it wasn’t who did it, but who didn’t do it.

Killers of the Flower Moon ends on an unexpected note of self-aware bite: it’s a stinging, bruising commentary about the troublesome nature of mainstream storytelling, about who gets to tell the stories and who gets to listen. Surely Scorsese shouldn’t be the only person to tell them, but this is another stunning, wrenching American epic from our greatest living filmmaker.

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Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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