In Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Review by Tim Robins


Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

When we last heard from director Martin Scorsese, he was explaining to Empire magazine that Marvel movies were like “theme parks” and, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Then he was explaining what he meant by that to Forbes:

“I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of movies – of what they were and what they could be – that was as far from the Marvel universe as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri,” he said.

Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorcese’s latest movie, is nothing if not down to Earth. It is a grueling watch, not because of its three and a half hour running time, but because of its subject matter: the fate of the Osage Nation, at the hands of White Americans.

The film is based on the award-winning non-fiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann, and is a far cry from stories of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ once found in the pages of boys adventure comics, film and TV Westerns of my youth. There are no spectacularly staged massacres, but, never-the-less, members of the Osage Nation are killed off; down alleys or while alone at home, or while out driving. Soon their bloated bodies are found scattered in picturesque parts of the Oklahoma landscape.

The Osage Nation had been forced to move from Kansas to “Indian Territory” by the US Federal Government. Ironically, this new homeland turned out to be rich in oil reserves and the Osage had mineral rights attached to their allotments. While the oil brought wealth to many, it also precipitated a “Reign of Terror ” during the early 1920s, during which, some 24 Osage were killed… although some deaths were recorded as the result of “indigestion”, “peculiar wasting illness” or “causes unknown”.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

The deaths were part of what amounted to an enormous inheritance scam by which White people married Osage family members with “headrights” to oil royalties. The film focuses on two of the few perpetrators to be convicted of murder; William K. Hale and his nephew Ernest Burkhart. Hale encouraged his nephew to marry an “allotted” Osage woman, Mollie Kyle.

In short suit, Kyle’s mother, sister, nephew, daughter and her husband were shot, blown up or poisoned. Kyle, like many Native Americans, suffered from Type II Diabetes and we can’t help wondering if her husband is injecting her with poisoned insulin.

Mollie Kyle (nee Burkhart) is played by Lily Gladstone who is of Piegan Blackfeet, Nez Perce and European heritage. Her appearances include First Cow (2019) and Reservation Dogs (2021-2023), FX’s three season drama about four indigenous teenagers making trouble and coming to terms with life.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Scorcese loves his performers’ faces. They are often seen in close-up, and the camera transfixes us on Gladstone who conveys a mixture of desire, love and acceptance. Her scenes with DiCaprio are hard to watch. We know Burkhart has been told by his Uncle to marry her for her land rights. Worse, Kyle senses that Burkhart’s a wrong’un. Kyle calls him a coyote, a sly, trickster figure in Osage tales, who has often comical adventures. Kyle seems to find her husband-to-be amusing.

DiCaprio’s commitment to his role is etched into his face. He wears a perpetual frown that some have interpreted as a sign of the character’s stupidity. I disagree. It speaks to me of a powerless life spent negotiating everything the world throws at him, everything that gets in the way of meeting his selfish needs.

That’s not to say Burkhart is clever. He continually fails to think through the possible outcomes of his actions. He gives his car in part payment to a man he sends to kill. When the man is caught, Burkhart explains the gift was part of an insurance scam. Not even his Uncle believes him, and Hale gives Burkhart a paddling at the local Masonic lodge where Hale is the Worshipful Master, of course.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Robert De Niro plays Hale as an oleaginous character, who ingratiates himself with the Osage people, learning their language, becoming a friend to the tribe and even presiding at ceremonies and meetings. Except we know the truth.

Hale’s initial, intimate conversation with his nephew is utterly creepy. We sense the cold calculation behind his softly spoken but probing questions. In history, the run of killings stopped after Hale was imprisoned – which was lucky for his nephew, who was likely to have been next on his Uncle’s kill list. However, it is worth noting that it is now thought that, rather than 27, hundreds of Osage people were killed between 1918-31.

Scorsese is in his element here, a master in full command of cinematic language. He seemingly effortlessly establishes the historical context with silent movie captions, old photographs, casual conversations and period detail.

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

The director wants the audience to live among the Osage Nation. He certainly never lets us lose sight of the racism behind the way the Osage are treated. Almost every professional in town has a stake in scamming the Osage People, including those in respected positions. Doctors and lawyers are among the worst offenders. In one scene, our characters sit and watch a newsreel of the Tulsa massacre in which mobs of White people scourged the Greenwood district, at the time one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, leaving 75 to 300 dead and destroying churches, schools and municipal buildings. There but for the grace of oil rights, is the fate of the Osage.

Some critics have found Killers of the Flower Moon’s running time to be self-indulgent or a result of its eventual destination – streaming on Apple+. That may be so. However, the critic in the i newspaper who suggested that Scosese uses slow motion to pad the movie out, needs to be sent back to film school.

The scene in question, where Osage tribesmen are bathed in oil erupting from the ground is a work of poetry. As we watch the slowly unfolding scene, we have time to register the joy on their faces, then to think about how brief this moment will be and then imagine the Osage bathed not in oil but blood.

Of course, when Scorsese talks of the art of cinema, he means the medium of film, not actual cinemas. In the one I went to, a spiritual moment in which Kyle and her husband are sitting, silently listening to a storm, was accompanied by the music of Taylor Swift whose movie, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, was playing on the screen next door.

And, yes, several people walked out at different points in the film. Killers of the Flower Moon is sometimes hard to sit with but well worth your time.

Tim Robins

Further Reading

Osage Nation Language Department publishes children’s book ‘Coyote and the Bear’

Using ARP funds from the Native Language Project, this book retells the traditional story in the Osage orthography and is available in both print and online editions. Osage artist Joe Don Brave illustrated the book.


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