Scorsese and DiCaprio didn’t want to make another “white savior” movie. Instead, they produced a nearly 4-Hour opus of sympathy for a man who conspired to murder his wife and her family.
Additional reporting by Michael Lovaglio
At the premier of Martin Scorsese’s 30th directorial feature, Killers of the Flower Moon, Christopher Cote, Osage language consultant, gives an immediate raw assessment. “I was nervous about the release of the film,” admits Cote. “Now that I’ve seen it, I have some strong opinions. As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people. But this story is being told, this history is being told, almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart, and they kind of give him this conscience, and they kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love… that’s just beyond abuse.”
Cote offers a powerful critique of the film while acknowledging the filmmakers’ desire to service the story with respect, giving renewed voice to the intimate and acute violence perpetrated against Mollie Kyle, her family, and the Osage Nation. Yet, Cote’s critique has been muffled by overwhelming praise for the film, as well as the decision to center it around Ernest Burkhart. “He was a supporting player in [David] Grann’s book who was arrested for allegedly mixing poison in the insulin he was injecting into his diabetic Osage wife,” explains Valerie Complex per Deadline. “DiCaprio and Scorsese liked the conflict faced by Burkhart, who in their telling loves his wife but still does what he is told by his uncle, William Hale.”
A National Book Award Finalist, Killers of the Flower Moon investigates the murders of the richest people per capita at the start of the 20th century- the Osage. The young director of a new and fledging government agency, J. Edgar Hoover, seized this opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of his methods and model of federal law enforcement, appointing a former Texas Ranger to make arrests and ensure convictions. Naturally, studios were salivating over the premise; bidding on the film rights a full year before the book was published.
In his book, Grann does not just investigate the killings, but the larger conspiracy at play- to murder the Osage for their inheritance, their “headrights” to oil. The crimes were not just heinous, but the conspirators arguably changed the course of American history. These domestic terrorists systematically murdered scores of Osage men and women usurping generational wealth, and stymying Osage descendants from centuries of financial prosperity.
Local and state law enforcement were either disinterested or incompetent, as were the agents sent by the Bureau of Investigation until Hoover appointed Tom White. White was a full-bodied iteration of the kind of fictionalized character mostly found in the pages of dime store paperback novels. He was resolute in his belief in protection under the law. His oath to the Constitution was not cynical or self-serving.
“White was an old-style lawman,” writes Grann. “[H]e was attracted to the darkness, and in 1917 he took the oath to become a special agent for the Bureau of Investigation. He swore, ‘I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies… SO HELP ME GOD.”
In our most cherished fables, darkness is exposed by men and women who are attracted to it yet resist it. Few linger in the darkness longer, or find more comfort there, than William Hale, the architect of the conspiracy to murder Mollie’s family, including, if accounts are accurate, his own unborn child to Mollie’s sister Anna.
Grann writes, when White eventually confronts Hale with the necessary evidence to convict, he worked hard “to contain the violent passions inside him.” Discipline, self-control, a steady focus on justice for victims: all in service to the law. It’s the kind of story needed in 2023, a reminder of the potency of protection under the law and an example of why a strong federal government can be used to uphold the law and protect democracy. But the film’s architects went another way.
While early iterations of the screenplay focused more on White than Earnest Burkhart, Scorsese, DiCaprio, and De Niro “grew uncomfortable telling a ‘white savior’ law-and-order story that had been a staple of Westerns for decades”, explains Complex. Telling the story from the perspective of Burkhart, the man who plotted to murder his wife’s family for profit, and was slowly poisoning her, is an odd choice. Bordering on astonishing, there is little conversation, as Cote notes, that the story should be told by Mollie. After all, it’s her story. Mollie’s family was targeted and murdered, yet she is a supporting character in Scorsese’s adaptation. Even if Burkhart’s “dilemma” is compelling, a fuller, more nuanced approach to this uniquely American horror story would be to give depth and understanding to White’s bullish intent to expose, and more time to Mollie. Much more time to Mollie. Lilly Gladstone brilliantly depicts Mollie as stoic, with a silent, vibrant strength even though the film’s structure sidelines her for large parts.
Scorsese comes close to offering viewers something profound but stops short. Killers of the Flower Moon could have been more than a film about a moment in history. It could have spoken to the ongoing endemic of white nationalism.
Through news footage, Scorsese shows images of the Tulsa massacre of Black Wall Street. In that act of domestic terrorism, in that act of war against American citizens, more than lives were taken, more than wealth was stolen. Future generations were robbed of their birthright, their inheritance. Countless descendants of the victims of Black Wall Street are due justice for the opportunities taken away. Stealing the future, maintaining a white nationalist America, was the point of the massacre. 50 miles away, in Osage County, men like William Hale, and his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, were doing the same. Yet, there is no examination of the perpetual virus that infects large populations of white Americans, over generations, who feel entitled to take what is not theirs. With only breadcrumbs to follow, Killers of the Flower Moon missed an opportunity.
The FBI made its reputation on prosecuting those who perpetuated crimes against the Osage Nation, specifically crimes against Mollie Burkhart and her family. There was no justice until the federal government intervened. The power of the federal government as a stabilizing force of justice could have made for brilliant cinema. It certainly would have been more powerful than a nearly 4-hour drama into the mind of the right hand of the conspiracy to rob generational wealth from the Osage and their descendants.
Still, in 2023, it was nice to see a nearly 4-hour Martin Scorsese epic in IMAX. Better yet, seeing a movie made for grown-ups in a theater at the start of awards season is a throwback to an era that needs an awakening. His ability to delve into complex and layered narratives, especially in the realm of crime and historical drama, is well established. Scorsese’s passion for exploring the darker aspects of American history and crime could have been a perfect fit for this story, rooted in the Osage murders. Furthermore, his experience adapting real-life events into compelling film, as he did with Goodfellas and The Irishman, could have added depth and authenticity. Yet, when the protagonist of the film conspired to murder Osage men and women, his wife, and her family, depth and authenticity are lost. Victim’s voices are drowned out by a play of sympathy for the perpetrator.
Please, do not mistake this critique for poor quality. The entire cast is brilliant. DeNiro’s Hale grins like a Cheshire cat, never trusting, always plotting; he’s gorgeously malicious. Jesse Plemons adds a much-needed jolt of energy, and conscience, when he enters a little more than 2-hours in. All performances deliver. The crisp cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto transports viewers to an era with vast plains, gorgeous homes, magnificent turn of the century architecture, and a crispness that mirrors an early evening Fall walk. It was undoubtedly a captivating cinematic experience. And, it should have been more.
Mollie Burkhart, the Osage Nation, deserve more. The Martin Scorsese who delivers the final lines of the film would agree.