Martin Scorsese Explores the Dark Depths of History in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Martin Scorsese’s latest cinematic masterpiece, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” immerses viewers in the opulent yet troubling world of the 1920s, where the Osage Nation in northeast Oklahoma enjoyed immense wealth due to the discovery of oil beneath their land. While Scorsese’s keen eye for historical detail brings this era to life, the story is also a haunting portrayal of exploitation. The Osage people may live in luxury, but they have little control over their riches, as white guardians appointed by the U.S. government oversee their finances. Many Osage women, who hold considerable wealth, are in marriages that raise suspicions about ulterior motives.

Adapted from David Grann’s acclaimed 2017 book, the film revolves around one such marriage. Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the role of Ernest Burkhart, a charismatic yet somewhat aimless World War I veteran who relocates to Oklahoma to live with his uncle, the influential cattle rancher William K. Hale, played by the legendary Robert De Niro. Ernest’s journey intertwines with Mollie Kyle, a resolute Osage woman portrayed by the talented Lily Gladstone, known for her work in “Reservation Dogs” and “Certain Women.”

Martin Scorsese Explores the Dark Depths of History in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

Ernest’s initial flirtations with Mollie evolve into a deep connection, culminating in a visually stunning wedding sequence. The film beautifully captures the sweeping landscapes through Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and showcases Jacqueline West’s impeccable costume design. However, Mollie’s newfound happiness soon gives way to a series of tragedies. Her mother and sister fall prey to a mysterious ailment, and another sister meets a tragic end in the woods. More Osage individuals meet untimely deaths, hinting at a complex criminal conspiracy.

Grann’s book unraveled this conspiracy through the perspective of Tom White, a relentless FBI investigator, expertly portrayed by Jesse Plemons in the film. However, Scorsese’s adaptation shifts the narrative, revealing the nefarious plot from the outset: white men systematically target and murder Osage people to claim their oil-rich land rights.

What’s truly unsettling is the patience and ruthlessness of this scheme. The orchestrator behind these chess moves, arranged marriages, murders, and inheritance control, plays a meticulous and elaborate long game. “Killers of the Flower Moon” itself is a lengthy cinematic experience at three and a half hours, but it remains consistently engrossing, showcasing Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s mastery of the slow burn.

While De Niro’s Hale is at the center of the mystery, his cunning demeanor and iconic past roles add layers of intrigue. DiCaprio, another Scorsese veteran, excels as Hale’s unsuspecting accomplice, leaving audiences questioning his involvement when Mollie’s life is in peril.

As Mollie grapples with doubt and grief over her family’s tragic fate, Lily Gladstone’s captivating performance immerses viewers in her turmoil.

Scorsese’s intent is to honor the victims and shed light on their place in the broader history of Native American displacement and tragedy. After decades of exploring the darker aspects of American society, Scorsese delves into the country’s original sin. While the film’s pre-release discussion centered on the director’s dedication to authenticity through collaboration with Osage consultants, questions have arisen about whether a white filmmaker should tell this story—a question Scorsese acknowledges in a powerful scene within the film.

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The film’s only shortcoming, in my view, is its perspective, as it could benefit from greater emphasis on Mollie and the other Osage characters. However, Scorsese’s primary interest lies elsewhere. “Killers of the Flower Moon” marks a fresh direction for the director, yet it retains his unwavering focus on the violence inflicted by men and the enduring trauma it leaves in its wake.

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