“I love money.”
Ernest Birkheart’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) common refrain in Killers of the Flower Moon could serve as an operating ethos for the American project. If the United States is the “land of opportunity,” it’s worth identifying the precise “opportunity.” Vulgar as it might sound to some, “opportunity” equates to wealth, which is intimately linked to land ownership, especially when that land contains valuable natural resources like oil. It’s simple logic: if someone loves money, they will do whatever they can to acquire it. It also helps if they believe in their identity’s superiority, which makes the moral and spiritual conflicts they’ll encounter easier to negotiate. The only question is, how far does one go? Is there a bottom?
As central as it is to the collective American identity, the iniquity in its history still horrifies. Killers of the Flower Moon explores a remarkably sickening chapter: the serial murders of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The film centers on Ernest Burkhart, a war veteran roped into a scheme to steal the land rights of wealthy Osage people by his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro). When Burkhart marries Mollie (Lily Gladstone), he and Hale conspire to kill Mollie’s sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers), Minnie (Jillian Dion), and Reta (JaNae Collins) over several years. The ultimate goal is for Burkhart, and ultimately Hale, to inherit his mother-in-law Lizzie’s (Tantoo Cardinal) oil-rich land. It aids a greater effort to limit, displace, and eliminate the Osage Nation, which eventually catches the attention of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation.
The federal investigators uncover a hideous crime of base cruelty and profound stupidity. Flower Moon is epic in presentation and length, but Martin Scorsese doesn’t suggest that the central scheme is some intricate conspiracy. The film’s most potent propulsive force is its startling juxtaposition of the pathetic black comedy that shapes Hale’s plans and the execution’s brutality. Hale employed easily exploited, racist idiots who couldn’t see past their last drink, let alone their actions’ consequences. Ernest barely leads his lazily-constructed group of criminals through absurd errors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so grotesque. Scorsese and his brilliant editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, contrast the unsettling humor with brutally straight violence. There is no glorification or gratuity; we see gunshots to the head from a distance, and we only hear home-destroying explosions. We see the enormity of the aftermath, which curdles the blood.
Scorsese’s two tonal pillars provide him with a framework to interrogate the destructive forces of white supremacy in action. Hale’s plots may be brazenly stupid and criminal, but his participation in the Osage community is insidious. He plays the affable white town elder, sitting in tribal council meetings and expressing solidarity in the Native language. It’s a vicious act. The trusting Osage people don’t hear how he speaks of them to Ernest as “head rights” and financial statements. He treats his “best friend” Henry Roan (William Belleau) as a literal insurance policy. The Osage people are obstacles to his economic nirvana, and his racism stops him from taking them seriously. (That arrogance ultimately leads to his downfall.)
Robert De Niro is deeply disturbing as Hale, turning in one of the best performances of his later career. The genius of his work lies in how he never clues us into the depth of Hale’s depravity. He moves so effortlessly between Hale’s twin personas that you question his cynicism’s honesty. Is it all about money, supremacy, or a mix of both? De Niro keeps his cards tight to his chest, even as the walls close in on Hale. Whether he is the brutal sociopath or the doting community man, De Niro is consistently, unimpeachably unflappable. He would never give anyone the satisfaction. The endless obfuscation makes Hale even more sickening and makes De Niro’s performance momentous.
Even before the Burkhart plot begins, Scorsese infuses Lakeview’s presumed peace with strands of unease. The desperation of the blue-collar white men seeking financial attention from the wealthier Osage people in the town squares carries whiffs of disdain. While the film doesn’t fully explain it, the system of regulation and white guardianship of Osage wealth feels similarly precarious and especially infantilizing. The opinion that white people deserve the Osage people’s resources casts a large shadow over the town. Hale’s plotting lights a long-tail fuse that seemed destined for ignition because peace, however relative, doesn’t hold a candle to rabid greed and self-importance. Hale and his active and passive conspirators would rather watch their world burn than live in one where they weren’t atop the pecking order.
Hale’s racist plot is more than property damage and serial murder. Flower Moon explicitly tracks, in riveting detail, Hale’s damage to the human soul, how he rips away chunks and sets them ablaze. Ernest and Mollie offer our most intimate look at the process. Their relationship initially looks genuine, with mutual attraction and Mollie’s amusement at Ernest’s overconfidence. Their love quickly takes a backseat to Hale’s machinations. Ernest comforts his grieving wife as Minnie, Anna, and Reta all die, knowing he is either complicit in or actively responsible for each death. He sees Mollie’s spirit seep out with each tragedy, compounded by her diabetes, but refuses to ease her suffering. Ernest is pathetically simple but not blind. He sees the carnage, and we see it horrify him, or rather, the part where his humanity resides within him. However, the “I love money” part of him consistently wins out.
Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio form a shattering pair to convey the destruction of their characters’ souls. As Mollie, Gladstone primarily occupies spaces in silence or short sentences. She communicates volumes through her face, from bemusement to confusion to unfathomable anguish. Gladstone beautifully moves through the range of world-weariness, showing how it transforms into devastation when a partner weaponizes love to strip someone of their intelligence and self-preservation. DiCaprio throws himself at the role of Mollie’s husband and chief tormentor, cutting an embarrassing, reprehensible figure without vanity. He holds back from caricature by conveying Ernest’s tiny glimmers of regret and horror. We see Ernest’s essence crumble in DiCaprio’s eyes, and we resent his cowardice in speaking truth to the suffering he wrought. Their final moment together – demonstrating how tightly we cling to the lies we tell ourselves – ranks among the year’s best.
But Flower Moon is more than one couple. It is a systemic extermination of a community of human beings. It is gaslighting, dehumanization, abject violence, and land theft. Culture, traditions, and customs are destroyed by people who will never be satisfied, not even when the destruction appears complete. Two hundred and six minutes isn’t enough time to encapsulate the damage done to the Osage Nation by white supremacy. Scorsese’s effort is outstanding across the board, from his methodical direction to his heartrendingly honest truths about the American Dream.
What lingers about Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t necessarily its technical excellence but Scorsese’s acknowledgment of his limits. Rather than closing with Ernest and Mollie, Scorsese ends his film with two stunning scenes that discuss how we commodify stories around nonwhite suffering. It boldly reframes Flower Moon’s purpose, and sincerely cedes the space Scorsese occupied back to its community. Audiences and critics will likely debate the ending for some time, which I imagine is precisely the point. Scorsese is one of our fiercest advocates for cinema as a force for human evolution. He doesn’t remove himself from that process, even at this stage of his prolific career. We can all learn from the horrors and mistakes of the past. We may have begun that way, but we don’t have to remain killers of the flower moon.
Killers of the Flower Moon is currently playing in theaters, and will stream on Apple TV+ by the end of the year.