Arts and Entertainment

Wolves in Plain Sight: Killers of the Flower Moon

Reunited with a familiar cast and crew, Martin Scorsese brings the history of the Osage Indian murders to life in epic form.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a seamless continuation of their cinematic legacy, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have returned with Killers of the Flower Moon, 50 years and nine films after their first collaboration. Departing from the familiar urban landscape of their past works, the duo ventures to the vast plains of Oklahoma, where the wildflowers bloom in yearly “Flower Moons.” Scorsese, who has arguably been the most highly acclaimed director in Hollywood since his career began, showcases his artistic genius yet again in his latest undertaking. He skillfully blends his distinctive storytelling with the film’s unique narrative identity as a historical adaptation, crime drama, and Western. Based on David Grann’s non-fiction 2017 book of the same title, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of a group of Native Americans who discover enormous oil wells underneath their land, instantly making them the wealthiest people on the planet. Almost as quickly as their wealth appears, however, it falls into the hands of white fortune hunters through a series of crimes known as the Osage Indian murders.

Scorsese slowly reveals the history of the Osage tribe through the character of Ernest                

Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who re-enters civilian life in the Osage Hills. Ernest moves in with his uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro), who goes by “King” and earns his living by slowly embezzling the Osage’s wealth. When his nephew arrives, King proposes that Ernest marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage heiress, which would place King’s family next in line for rights to the Osage’s oil fields and allow King to eventually inherit the entire Osage fortune. Ernest begins courting Mollie on King’s suggestion, and the romance that follows seems tender and genuine; when they eventually marry, their wedding mixes the rituals of Catholicism and the Osage religion, appearing to serve as an emblem of cultural unity.

This illusion quickly dissipates once Ernest and Mollie settle down. King orders the murder of Mollie’s family members, bringing himself closer to her inheritance with each killing. Scorsese does not distort the original history, depicting all of the murders in horrific detail. This is amplified by the film’s chaotic sequences, which persist from beginning to end in a constant pulse of gunshots and screams. Rather than making the broader theme of brutality the film’s focal point, Scorsese builds an intimate narrative structure in Ernest’s and Mollie’s personal struggles, providing a perspective that the source material lacks. It is in this manner that Scorsese employs the rhythm of their domestic life to set the film’s pace. The film weaves both stories together, interspersing Ernest and King’s massacre of the Osage with Ernest and Mollie’s gentle relationship. This relationship is initially passionate as Ernest comforts his wife about the loss of her family members, displaying genuine love for her even as he helps orchestrate her family’s killings behind her back. Slowly, Ernest’s tenderness gives way to dominance as he begins giving her laced insulin at King’s behest, purportedly to “slow her down” and prevent her from searching for the culprit of the murders. By interweaving these two narratives, Scorsese turns each killing into a victory in Ernest’s conquest of Mollie’s identity and pride as an Osage Indian, giving urgency and meaning to what might otherwise have been a tragic but less resonant storyline.

Scorsese’s choice to magnify Ernest’s and Mollie’s narrative gives the film much of the emotional impact it needs for its three-hour runtime. Still, it largely remains reliant on the tension created between DiCaprio and Gladstone. The duo rises to the challenge of portraying the characters’ tormented relationship, with DiCaprio’s desperate, anguished Ernest juxtaposing Gladstone’s stoic Mollie. When Ernest is first seen with King, King warns him that “the Osage are sharp, they don’t talk much.” Gladstone embodies these words in her portrayal of Mollie, filling the room left by her sparse, direct dialogue with pointed glances that seem to pierce through the lies of the men who surround her. She rarely displays any outward emotion, maintaining a relaxed disposition despite the pain she endures. This gives Mollie an air of dignity that Ernest and King are unable to break. Despite the crimes he commits, Ernest is displayed with more dimension than a traditional movie villain, a trope Scorsese revisits time and time again in his films. DiCaprio maintains Ernest’s humanity by portraying him as a pained man, torn between materialistic greed and a fierce love for his family. These multidimensional performances make the film more compelling; DiCaprio’s pitiful, tempestuous Ernest undergoes a heartbreaking transformation into a murderer, while Mollie remains hopeful and resists the violence that consumes her community, only to fall victim to it herself.

The authenticity of these portrayals is elevated by the fact that Scorsese consulted real Osage descendants during the filmmaking process. Scorsese explained in an interview with NME that “every aspect of this film—the Osage culture, the baby namings, the funerals, the wedding, all these things were something [he] wanted to recreate.” The film’s score is composed by the late Robbie Robertson, Scorsese’s 40-year collaborator, whose mother was an Indigenous woman from the Mohawk Nation tribe. The music that results is characteristically Western-style, but with distinctly native elements taken from Robertson’s childhood that keep it thematically in tune. 

While Scorsese uses dark and moody shots to build the film’s somber tone, most of The Killers of The Flower Moon’s cinematography is jarringly modern, with drone shots, slow motion, and dynamic camerawork that often seem straight out of a contemporary blockbuster. The sets and costumes are also temporally ambiguous, clearly from the past but not linked to the 1920s, when the true events unfolded. This is even more conspicuous in the scenes shot in the residential neighborhood Ernest and Mollie eventually move into, which resembles the suburbs that surround Midwestern cities today. 

At some moments, the cinematography and costume choices feel out of place in the context of the movie, hampering its ability to fully immerse its audience. As the movie progresses, however, they come together to free the harrowing story of the Osage from the bonds of time. Instead of using visual cues to link The Killers of The Flower Moon to any specific time period, Scorsese and his cast emphasize the universality of this history through their raw, vulnerable performances, treating the characters they play as humans rather than as larger-than-life historical figures. This allows the story of the Osage to echo long after the film ends, transcending its place in history to become a commentary on the relationship between Native Americans and the colonists who stopped at nothing to rob them of their natural wealth.