Killers of the Flower Moon
Appian Way, 2023
Martin Scorsese / Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese, David Grann
📷 : Used with permission, Matt Needle
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Factual stories are compelling, sad, angering, and at times exhilarating. Based on David Grann’s 2017 best seller, the movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, is all these things.
Set in the 1920s, Director Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon highlights the widespread conspiracy to extort money from an Indigenous American tribe in Oklahoma. After striking it rich from oil found on their land, members of the Osage Nation lived in luxury. Many had automobiles, horse-drawn carriages with drivers, furs to keep them warm, and large multi-level homes with fireplaces and servants. The idea of wealthy “Indians'' didn't sit well with White citizens near or far. So, paternalistic structures were put into place to force Osage to see “the man” any time they wanted to withdraw money – and requiring them to justify the amount of their request.
White people with influence, like sheriffs, local politicians, and prominent community members, devised schemes for White men to marry Osage women as a way to partake in the family’s wealth. Soon after marrying, the women began to fall ill with what the local doctors described as “wasting,” a mysterious ailment symptomized by weakness, lack of appetite, and eventual death. It seems that to avoid sharing the wealth at all, the men slowly and methodically killed their brides to inherit the wealth exclusively. The film reveals the boldness of this pursuit, as one scene depicts a White man presenting a hypothetical to a lawyer of his plans to do just that. Paraphrasing: “You realize by telling me this you are telling me you plan to do this, right?” says the lawyer. “Right,” says the man matter of factly. “So, can I do it?”
This epic film stirs a range of emotions. For one, it feels good to see Osage citizens basking in the yields of the resources from their lands. Understanding this means knowing that the U.S. has a very long history of exploiting Indigenous groups: attempted genocide through war and intentional exposure to disease (smallpox blankets), forced assimilation practices through Indian boarding schools, and the habitual breaking of treaties. It also has a history of relocating Indigenous groups from valuable lands that the groups rightfully own. So yes, it feels good to see a film that shows this group triumph and display the accoutrements of wealth.
The second emotion stirred by the film is the way in which Indigenous Americans are represented. Historically, the groups are presented speaking in monosyllabic utterances and situated opposite White people with little if any negotiating power. Such is not the case in Killers of the Flower Moon, as the Osage Nation has economic leverage. This, however, goes only so far when we realize that wealth does not necessarily translate to political influence when the money is held by a marginalized group. So, the stirring of emotions slows as the insidious nature of the schemes, the scale of the conspiracies, and the breadth and magnitude of the crimes become evident, and the ability to do something about them amounts to the equivalent of using a banana to drive a nail into a wall.
Starring Al Pacino as William Hale and Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, Killers of the Flower Moon is led with star power. But the strength of other performances in this film deserves mention as well. Lily Gladstone (Fancy Dance, The Unknown Country) who plays Mollie Burkhart, Ernest Burkhart’s wife, delivers a powerful performance as she balances her love for self and her Osage identity with her love for her husband and family. Ernest, however, is caught between his overbearing Uncle Will (Pacino) and his genuine love for his wife - and he must figure out where his loyalties lie.
Mollie’s mother Lizzie Q, played by Tantoo Cardinal (Wind River, Shouting Secrets), is “old-school” Indigenous American, as she distrusts White men and sees Osage women dying not long after marrying them. “It is not wasting,” she insists. “They are being killed.” But as with many older adults today, few if any young people listen to Lizzie Q or believe what she says, not even her own children.
Unlike older and even some newer films featuring Indigenous American characters (i.e. Geronimo (1962), The Lone Ranger (2013), numerous Westerns starring John Wayne), Killers of the Flower Moon is cast with Indigenous American actors. This serves the dual purpose of representing authentic Indigenous American identities on-screen and providing them with the space and the microphone to tell their own story. The result is a film that grabs the lapels of our humanity with both hands and shakes us to our core. I am saddened by the experiences of this group, but also by the fact that we are just now learning about such a travesty a century after it occurred.
In terms of aesthetics, Killers of the Flower Moon brings to mind the 1965-69 television series, The Big Valley (a show my parents watched). Created by A.I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman, the weekly hour-long Western is about a wealthy White family living in a big multi-level home on their California ranch in the late 19th century. Fast forward 40 years, add automobiles, and change the setting from rural to urban, and you have the feel of Killers of the Flower Moon. The movie’s lighting is darker to reflect the subject matter, but Mollie’s home is similarly designed with a long staircase to the upper level. It does, however, feel less expansive due to the tight urban setting - and likely that Mollie’s money is new!
Based on a true story, this film stirs a range of emotions as good films often do. If you can handle this intense experience, I encourage you to see Killers of the Flower Moon. It is an epic covering a piece of history we should know and never forget.