The piece below was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Moments into Martin Scorsese’s (The Irishman, Silence, The Wolf of Wall Street) masterful, magisterial adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone, revelatory), sits quietly in a dusty, airless office overlooking an unpaved road in Pawhuska, the city and county seat of Osage County in Oklahoma (circa 1920). Without onscreen prompting from her court-appointed “guardian,” a suit dressed as an older, avuncular white man who, by force of law, controls her income, Mollie names herself, her tribal affiliation (Osage), the allotment number set aside for her under the law, and lastly, a stinging, demeaning, caustic word, “incompetent.” For Mollie, it’s ritualized humiliation; it’s also the only way she can access her own money.
Words have meaning; words backed by the force of law, specifically American law of the early 20th century, classified Molly, her immediate family, and every member of the Osage Nation, displaced from Arkansas and Missouri by the United States government, left in the inhospitable flatlands of Oklahoma to fend for themselves, as “incompetent” once black gold (i.e., oil) was found on Osage lands. By law, each member of the Osage Nation received the headrights, rights to oil and mineral under tribal land, with royalties paid regularly to the Osage from American oil companies.
What the law gave (royalties), it also immediately abrogated, creating an infinitely corruptible system where, through a stroke of a pen, each Osage was declared “incompetent,” incapable of handling his or her personal affairs. A guardian, usually white, usually a lawyer or local businessman, had the authority to approve (or disapprove) expenditures, thus setting up the ritual Mollie and every member of the Osage had to undergo regularly to access the money that was otherwise rightfully theirs. And with all that wealth, once the highest per capita in the United States, men like Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dim, under-educated WWI veteran, arrived on the trains that brought men, animals, and other materials to Osage lands, ostensibly to fill the demands of the oil companies who ceaselessly exploited Osage land for oil. Burkhart, however, had an in, a connection via William Hale (Robert De Niro), a local businessman, rancher, and self-appointed “friend” to the Osage. Hale was anything but a friend. Instead, in a turn familiar to anyone with even passing knowledge of Scorsese’s oeuvre, the head of a criminal enterprise (the CEO as it where), convinces Burkhart first to romance and marry Molly and later to participate as a knowing, willing co-conspirator in the “Reign of Terror” against the Osage Nation.
The furrowed brow, clenched-jaw Burkhart DiCaprio — an acquired taste here more than elsewhere — gives us rarely falls on the right side of sympathetic or root-worthy. He’s not a hero nor even an anti-hero. Every action, every non-action where action was the better, more ethical, or moral choice, leads inexorably to the loss of his soul. Only his conditional love for Mollie, like everything else corrupted by Hale’s influence, comes close to redeeming him. But in the battle between greed and love, between morality and capitalism, Burkhart repeatedly chooses against Mollie, by inaction and later inaction allowing every possible injustice against Mollie and her family to unfold with his implicit or explicit participation.
A penetrating, incisive character study set across an epic Western canvas courtesy of frequent Scorsese collaborator and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and legendary production designer Jack Fisk (The Tree of Life, There Will Be Blood, Days Of Heaven), Killers of the Flower Moon anchors its otherwise sprawling story in the characters of Mollie, Burkhart, and Hale, with Mollie’s literal survival, along with the survival of her children with Burkhart, set against the rapacious greed and hubris of Burkhart himself and his uncle, the personification of early 20th-century capitalism, unfettered by law (or so he believes) and practice (he runs the town of Fairfax as a fiefdom and prefers to be called “King” by his family).
As Mollie, Lily Gladstone delivers a finely honed, layered performance, often dependent less on words — as Mollie must always keep her own counsel, careful in whom she trusts and when —but in her expressivity, on conveying Mollie’s complex, conflicted life. Gladstone makes Mollie’s acquiescence, first in the romance with the penniless Burkhart, and later, as the people closest to her begin to die in violent or mysterious ways and she suspects Burkhart’s role in the wide-ranging, Anti-Osage conspiracy, painfully persuasive. Her agency and autonomy might be circumscribed by law, gender and racial constructions, and social practice, but within that narrowly prescribed freedom, she continually chooses to love Burkhart.
Mollie’s initially unwavering belief in Burkhart slowly crumbles over Killers of the Flower Moon’s generous running time as her husband’s actions become increasingly questionable, but that doesn’t make her any less of a tragic figure. In fact, it makes her more of one, acquiescing, at least in part, in her own gaslighting, actively choosing to believe in Burkhart’s good nature rather than the opposite. It’s that same unconditional love that Hale, driven by economic forces even he can barely understand, attempts to leverage, using his own nephew to exponentially increase his wealth.
For Hale, like so many millionaires of his time and tech billionaires of ours, the word “enough” doesn’t exist as part of his vocabulary. Enough is never enough. More is always the goal. Wealth, power, and privilege mean nothing unless they can be wielded in a zero-sum game (more for him, less for everyone else). From one perspective, Hale represents the apotheosis of the mafiosos, capos, and hangers-on across Scorsese’s oeuvre, representatives of both patriarchal culture and a ruthlessly exploitative economic system. Perhaps controversially, Burkhart emerges as a tragic figure himself, too easily manipulated, too easily controlled, rejecting a life well-lived for the approval of a father figure, his uncle, that will never come.
The last hour and a half shifts the narrative calculus in favor of Mollie, partly through her actions (a self-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with then president Calvin Coolidge to request federal help), and partly through the arrival of Tom White (Jesse Plemons), an ex-Texas Ranger turned field agent for the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI). A classic Western lawman, White’s presence eventually leads to more bloodletting as Hale, immediately sensing White’s incorruptibility and methodical nature, begins to tie up loose ends.
A long-awaited trial shifts the focus again and it’s here, led by a mix of well-cast thespians (John Lithgow) and miscast ones (Oscar winner Brendan Fraser for one example), that Killers of the Flower Moon stumbles once or twice, though never for long and never fatally, saving one last, devastating, heart-crushing meeting between a resilient Mollie, fully aware of the crimes committed against her family and the Osage people, and a despondent Burkhart, seemingly repentant of his role in those crimes, where the truth, free of the comforting fictions Burkhart has told himself and others, finally takes center stage.
It almost reads — and certainly feels – like Mollie and Burkhart aren’t just two historical figures brought to complex, contradictory life by one of the living masters of the cinema, but as representative of the duality inherent in the American experience, of the ideals embedded in the U.S. Constitution taught to American students and the repeated failures to live up to those ideals. In that last, brief encounter, Scorsese wants nothing more than for us, individually and collectively, to set aside historical falsehoods, embrace historical truth in its imperfect totality, and continue striving toward those ideals. It’s a simple, but no less urgent message.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens theatrically on Friday, October 20th. A streaming release on AppleTV+ will follow at a later time.