Do You See The Wolves?
Mark my words, in the next week people are going to accuse Martin Scorsese and his film, Killers of the Flower Moon, of being racist. Sexist. Glorifying violence. Exploiting the experiences of Indigenous people. And most annoying of all, of being “woke.” This has happened to Scorsese for decades. He was accused of blasphemy with The Last Temptation of Christ,* accused of glorifying violence and the underworld with GoodFellas, and accused of glorifying violence/risky sex/drug use with The Wolf of Wall Street. The number of bad takes are seemingly endless.
It’s okay if Scorsese’s work is not your cup of tea. However, depiction is not endorsement. Not always. One of the foundations of media literacy is the understanding of that concept. It’s the understanding that the camera is a liar, that what you see depends so much on context and tone, and that every film has a point of view since every filmmaker has a point of view. Not a tough concept to grasp, right? So why is it we keep having the same arguments?
Am I saying that Scorsese is beyond criticism? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that before making a criticism, it’s wise to understand his intent. Otherwise, to use the parlance of our time, you’d be showing your entire ass. Killers of the Flower Moon won’t be to everyone’s taste, but his intent is as clear as glass and as sharp as a blade.
For a brief moment, the richest people on earth were the Osage Nation. At the end of the Nineteenth Century, they were forcibly removed from their land and deposited in a reservation in Oklahoma. They would have been ignored, like all the other tribes, had they not discovered oil. As the film begins in the 1920s, the area booms. Pierce-Arrows speed across the grassy plains, driven by White chauffeurs.
Into that boom town comes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I vet looking for purpose and a place to belong. He finds it at the sprawling cattle ranch of his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro), a man with a sophisticated understanding of power. Hale has allied himself with the Osage and the local Whites, portraying himself as a friend to all with the means to make things happen.
In the background, Hale has also been creative in lining his pockets, and he casts his eyes enviously at the oil rights of the Osage. He understands that his nephew Ernest is a bit stupid, a bit weak, and easily manipulated. For his part, Ernest idolizes King, loves money, and seems to thrive in an environment where he doesn’t have to think, only take orders.
Then, into Ernest’s life comes Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a full member of the Osage and recently single. They court each other, fall into something that could be mistaken for love. In the background, members of the Osage are dying. A kind of rot is spreading throughout the grasslands, and it inevitably heads for Mollie’s door.
Killers of the Flower Moon has a three hour and twenty-six minute runtime, and for the life of me, I don’t know how or why it could be made shorter. Between putting the history of the Osage in context, introducing the players and their character development, and the multitude of evil and stupid decisions that pushed this case into tragedy, it’s all necessary. In the hands of a lesser director, I could see the film either collapsing under its own weight or becoming needlessly simplistic.
All of that could freak out audiences, and that’s why I’m here to tell you: be not afraid. It speaks to Scorsese’s command of filmmaking that he’s able to make it all absorbing. He shot in Oklahoma, and his usage of the vast landscape and the detailed practical sets lends historical weight. On top of that is the finely calibrated pacing, which comes from Scorsese’s partnership with legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker They have an instinctive knowledge of when a scene needs to breathe and run long. They also know when the film needs to sprint.
Speaking of lesser films, a lesser screenplay would focus on Tom White, the Bureau of Investigations agent sent to solve the murders. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth initially went in that direction before sensing that something was wrong. After getting the Osage Nation involved, rewrites changed the primary focus to the perspectives of Mollie, Ernest, and King. That’s a smart move. Showing the POVs of victim, perpetrator, and accomplice makes the narrative more complex and more interesting. They also dive into the concept of people choosing to ignore corruption and evil in their midst. That’s a concept just as relevant then as it is now. Roth and Scorsese put it all together with an impeccably structured script, and we’re never confused about timelines or motivations.
Scorsese’s casts generally deliver top-shelf work, and this cast is no exception. You’ll come to see the leads, and we’ll get to them in a moment, but stay for a masterclass in supporting roles. The mighty Jesse Plemons shows up close to two hours in as a polite Texas investigator figuring out the complexities of the case. There’s also Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow as dueling attorneys, and musicians/actors Sturgill Simpson, Pete Yorn, and Jack White make memorable appearances.
Lily Gladstone has the least flashy role as Mollie, and in some ways, the most interesting. She’s wonderfully subtle, and her quiet asides in the Osage language and pointed glances carry more weight than a multiparagraph monologue. King is one of the best roles in Robert De Niro’s esteemed career. He’s allegedly pious, allegedly moral, and absolutely someone to whom the rules do not apply. De Niro doesn’t give us a Snidely Whiplash type of villain. Instead, King believes himself to be naturally above all those bothersome laws and conducts himself accordingly. Then there’s Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest. I mean this in a genuinely complimentary way, but if you need an actor to play someone who’s not quite as smart as he thinks and is ultimately weak, you pay DiCaprio whatever he wants. Ernest is a little greedy, a little stupid, and someone who doesn’t have the strength to stand up to his uncle or stand by his wife. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance, and DiCaprio shows us a world of layers.
Killers of the Flower Moon morphs from an examination of the Osage to a character piece about a feckless man to a crime thriller to a courtroom drama. Martin Scorsese, along with his talented crew and cast, has made a masterpiece. To be sure, there will be a cavalcade of idiotic takes on his film. Fifty years from now, only his film will matter.
*If you’re a Christian and you’re sending death threats or wishing harm upon another, spoiler alert: you’re not actually a Christian!