The Missing Politics of Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Blaming corrupt individuals rather than federal Indian policy for the violence and exploitation perpetrated against the Osage Nation misses the mark

The Missing Politics of Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’
JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Apple Original Films)

Breathtaking landscapes, impressive performances, stunning 1920s sets and period costumes, greed-fueled murder plots, a majestic and evocative score, sensitivity to the Osage communities whose story the film portrays — all are in abundant evidence throughout Martin Scorsese’s new epic, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Over the course of three and a half hours, Scorsese offers moment after seamless moment of gorgeous — and sometimes gruesome — filmmaking. He masterfully weaves together aerial vistas of unspeakably beautiful open spaces, visceral shots of Osage Indians being murdered or blown up in cold blood and entire scenes in which Osage characters and white characters speak to one another in the Osage language.

In the midst of marveling at the various pieces, however, I found some of the film’s core elements disappointing. That doesn’t make the wonderful parts less wonderful, but it certainly left me, as an Osage viewer, puzzling afterwards how a film with so much going for it could also come up short. More specifically, I found the film’s scant attention to U.S. federal policy toward Native Americans and the officials who carry it out to be a missed opportunity to show how bureaucracy has enabled Indigenous dispossession.

The screenplay, adapted from David Grann’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same title by Scorsese and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump” and “Dune”), tells the story of a murder plot against an Osage woman, Lizzie Q. Kyle (Tantoo Cardinal), her four daughters and members of her extended family during the early 1920s, when Osages were being exploited, cheated and killed by greedy whites seeking the Osage’s new and spectacular wealth from the vast oil field underneath their Oklahoma reservation. Lizzie’s daughter Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and her white husband, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), are at the center of the film along with Ernest’s uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a successful white business owner who has been ranching among the Osages since the turn of the century.

We find out early on that Hale’s pleasantries, glad-handing and impressive facility in the Osage language mask his true intention to cheat Osages out of their money any way he can, which he rationalizes by saying Osages have merely stumbled upon their wealth and are undeserving of it. Ernest works for his uncle, hoping to find his own fortune. Hale pushes Ernest to become acquainted with Mollie, marry her, then eventually kill her and inherit her estate.

Hale’s plan hinges on what is known as the Osage headright system, which came about through negotiations between the Osage Nation and the U.S. government at the turn of the 20th century. As it did across the country in that era, the U.S. government pressured the Osages to subdivide their reservation into individual allotments, which conceptually would weaken the ties of Native American people to each other and more practically would provide the means through which Native lands could more easily pass from Natives to whites. After years of resisting, the Osages agreed to allotting their lands but in the process managed to maintain communal ownership of rights to mineral resources, which, as it turns out, were abundant.

This happened just as oil was becoming a valuable commodity, and the ensuing rush to drill on the reservation led, by the 1920s, to Osages being widely regarded as the wealthiest people in the world. The way the wealth was shared, however, created what became a fatal vulnerability for some Osages. That is, each person listed on the Osage roll as of 1906 received a share of the mineral estate and the profits that arose from it. Those 2,229 shares became known as headrights. Osages born after the roll closed in 1906 did not receive their own headright shares but received them only through inheritance, most often shared with siblings. Thus, the number of shares remained the same (which is still true today).

Osages could sell or bequeath their headright shares to anyone, including spouses and other family members who were not Osage or even institutions like schools and churches. The U.S. government appointed white guardians to many newly rich Osages, ostensibly to protect them from exploitation. Many of these guardians, some of them lawyers and others doctors or businesspeople like Hale, used their positions to their own advantage. They approved payment of gouged prices for things their Osage wards purchased, receiving kickbacks from crooked merchants, and they found ways to become the designated heirs to their wards’ headright shares.

Hale’s plan involved killing off members of Mollie’s immediate and extended family, thus channeling their headrights to her. His nephew Ernest would then kill Mollie, and Hale would effectively control a massive fortune. The multiple deaths in Mollie’s extended family raised concerns, as did other mysterious deaths (often attributed to alcohol poisoning) across the reservation. Osage leaders eventually succeeded in drawing J. Edgar Hoover and his incipient Bureau of Investigation, as it was then known, to investigate.

Gladstone, De Niro and DiCaprio deliver impressive performances in portraying this conflicted triangle of love, blood, loyalty and greed. Gladstone more than holds her own alongside her Oscar-winning co-stars. Those who have seen Gladstone in the Hulu series “Reservation Dogs” or in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 film “Certain Women” will recognize the quiet, subtle, yet expansive expressiveness she brings to her portrayal of Mollie, a grief-stricken woman who carries the burden of leading her family through these deadly times while simultaneously starting a family with Ernest. In her one-on-one scenes with DiCaprio, she is both charmed and charming in a way that is essential to the story.

De Niro as William Hale, who styled himself “the King of the Osage Hills,” is a stark contrast to Gladstone’s understatement, his physical presence, smile and voice filling every space he enters. His way of orchestrating murder, corrupting police and other officials and getting a taste of every pot of money, no matter how large or small, is similar to roles De Niro has played before, as Hale is a Western version of a ruthless crime boss. Yet De Niro’s clipped speaking style and slightly higher than average tone is worlds apart from the gravelly low register of the typical movie crime boss. This furtive aspect of De Niro’s portrayal makes his impressive facility with conversational Osage even more remarkable, as it becomes like an outgrowth of Hale’s conniving personality, making Hale seem like he is making up for what he lacks in commanding presence through his schemes, deception and studied way of making friends of his intended victims. De Niro’s portrayal of Hale is in this way reminiscent of his character Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” though an even more apt comparison is to John Wayne’s archetypal Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), a film Scorsese has called “a touchstone … I go back to … all the time.” Like Hale with the Osage language, Edwards speaks Comanche, which Scorsese points out is an aspect of “his absolute hatred of Comanches and all Native Americans. … He hates Comanches so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs in order to violate them.”

DiCaprio’s portrayal of Ernest Burkhart is also exceptionally strong, and it’s nice to watch a star this big take on a role that is not larger than life, heroic or exceptionally devious. Neither does it require tremendous weight gain or loss or prosthetics to make him seem hideous. Instead, Ernest is Hale’s puppet. His role in Hale’s plan becomes clear early on, so the questions in play as the story develops are: Will Ernest succeed in killing Mollie? And, regardless of whether she lives or dies, will Mollie ever come to recognize Ernest’s murderous betrayals?

These are historical questions with factual answers, and the film adheres pretty closely to those facts. What the actual investigation that eventually put Hale and his thugs, including Ernest, on trial for murder did not establish with clarity, though, is what kept Ernest and Mollie together even as he participated in murdering her family and then began adding a slow-working poison to the insulin she took every day for diabetes, which is almost certainly what had killed her mother and her sister Minnie. The film fills in that gap primarily with Mollie’s love for Ernest, but for me that never quite added up.

Some of that has to do with the story the film tells through the relationships between this bereft and vulnerable Osage woman and these two murderers. Yet their interactions also rarely kept me on the edge of my seat or gave me insight into what goes through the mind of a ruthless killer like William Hale or a woman like Mollie, as she realizes she has contributed to her own tragedy by placing her trust in such awful people. Here’s what I mean: Hale was clearly a ruthless and racist man easily capable of arranging the murder of anyone — especially Osages — who got in the way of his insatiable greed. Ernest was clearly in thrall to his uncle. Mollie, as she told investigators, loved Ernest and called him kind and gentle. What’s missing from the story, though, is tension and suspense.

In one scene, for instance, DiCaprio deftly shows Ernest struggling with his own heartless duplicity as he injects Mollie with the poison that is slowly killing her, yet the lack of dialogue either with himself, a confidante or even Mollie in her incapacitated state limits the insight that the scene reveals. I keep thinking of DiCaprio’s undercover cop character Billy Costigan in Scorsese’s “The Departed,” stuck in a situation in which the only way out is through maintaining the trust of the deranged crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Sometimes in the space of a heartbeat, Costigan has to figure out how to placate Costello without blowing his cover. Adding to his own peril, he allows himself to fall for a police psychologist, which links him and the psychologist to Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) — Costello’s mole in the state police force. The story offers the audience multiple opportunities to see the unhinged Costello both through Costigan’s and Sullivan’s eyes, and in a few quick moments we can tell they are both scared shitless.

Director Martin Scorsese and Geoffrey Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation, meeting in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to discuss “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Cody Hammer/Osage News)

Those sorts of moments that DiCaprio demonstrates so memorably in “The Departed” barely appear in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” This is not to suggest that Ernest Burkhart and Billy Costigan are similar characters. By all accounts, Burkhart was sort of a dead fish. But Hale apparently made an enormous impression on him from the time Burkhart was a boy, and he admired his uncle greatly and wanted to please him. That seems to explain Ernest’s loyalty, but witnessing Hale growing more outrageous in ordering the murders of Osages, including his own wife’s family, must have shifted Ernest’s admiration deeper and deeper into fear and dread. As Hale becomes more and more brazen in the film, it seems like Scorsese and this excellent cast could have found more effective ways to build the suspense.

Further, the story makes Hale out to be a master of intrigue who orchestrates murder after murder while glad-handing his way among the unsuspecting Osages (and white people, too). Yet we see an ever-growing cast of shady white characters pulled into Hale’s schemes, many of whom seem to have been talking about Hale’s crimes, if quietly, all along. De Niro plays these aspects of Hale’s character with gusto. I find it difficult to believe, though, that very many Osages were among the some of the people Hale managed to fool all of the time. More likely, the surreal atmosphere of impending violence Hale and others created — and the ever-growing number of those participating in the exploitation — was what kept people quiet.

Crucial to this history, but missing from the film, is that this dangerous atmosphere was not primarily a product of Hale or the other corrupt people who came to the Osage Reservation after the discovery of oil. Rather, it arose in the context of the grinding reality of federal Indian policy, which, from the 1880s through the 1940s, proliferated avenues through which Native peoples would lose their land and resources more and more easily. Importantly, this is central to the story of the Osage murders not because it sets the stage for what happened, but because it was, in fact, a primary cause of what unfolded.

That is, what Hale and others took advantage of was not negligence on the part of the U.S. government, nor was the guardian system that put Osages at risk unique to them. In setting itself up as the trustee over allotted Native lands, the U.S. government operationalized an assumption that was a consistent aspect of policy since the 1830s, which is that Native Americans are not competent, either individually or collectively as tribal peoples, to make their own decisions. In the words of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1832, the relationship of Native Americans to the U.S. was “that of a ward to his guardian.” The use of these same terms 90 years later on the Osage Reservation is not a coincidence, and neither the federal government nor the lawyers and others who served as guardians to Osages saw themselves as primarily protecting the interests of their supposedly incompetent wards.

Allotment — the subdividing of Native lands among individuals — was the realization of an aspiration going back to the 1830s: expropriating Native lands in a way that would pass muster with courts and allow those who ended up on those lands to proclaim and perceive the process as fair and square. The outcome of allotment demonstrates how powerfully the policy worked. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Indigenous landholdings in the U.S. declined from 150 million to 50 million acres. Those 150 million acres were just 8% of the 1.9 billion acres of land in the contiguous United States, so after 50 years of allotment, Native Americans controlled less than 3% of the continent that was effectively all theirs prior to colonization. Allotting Native lands not only made this expropriation possible; in important ways, it mandated it. Not surprisingly, headrights operated in their own way as allotments insofar as they were not really a form of communal ownership, but a dividing-up of a resource into shares among a corporate body, shares that could pass from Osages to whites.

Explaining the fine points of allotment and the vagaries of federal Indian policy is challenging in a college lecture hall, much less amid the dramatic demands of a major motion picture. Grann’s book version of the story (titled “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” and published in 2017) solves this dramatic problem by shifting focus from the Osage murders to the role the investigation and prosecution played in putting Hoover and his agents on the map. Scorsese, to his credit, decided to stick with the Osage side of the story.

In doing so, however, the film runs into an important truth, which is that the ideological and bureaucratic forces against which the Osages were arrayed in the 1920s were much bigger than anything William Hale or the FBI could imagine. Telling that sort of story is tough, but not impossible. For instance, Akira Kurosawa tackled similar challenges in “Ikiru” (1957), a film about bureaucracy considered by many to be among the best films of all time. That film never pulls back the curtain to reveal the ultimate puppet master, but it’s clear by the end that bureaucracy itself replicates its own worst effects.

I can’t help but think that the dull but enabling aspects of the story of the Osage murders could have somehow animated the relationships at the center of the film and offered a stronger sense of the sheer scale of the forces at play in those perilous times. This long film already interjects short scenes that connect this story to the rise of Osage ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief and to the Greenwood Massacre of African Americans in Tulsa in 1921. Connecting the murders to their underlying and enabling causes in law, policy and bureaucracy is at least as important, especially since doing so might have helped make better dramatic sense of the story.

This absence of the crucial role of policy and bureaucracy in the story of the Osage murders in general, and William Hale’s plot against Mollie Burkhart’s family in particular, does not ruin “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It remains a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and sensitively wrought film. I am looking forward to watching it again once it is available to stream so I can savor the details more closely, especially appearances by the many Osage extras and those with a few lines; performances by Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, Tatanka Means and other experienced Native actors who shine brightly if briefly; and the scenes featuring Jesse Plemmons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser and lots of others.

Before any of that, though, I am planning on going back to see it during its run in theaters, not only to feel the visual bigness of it but to listen even more closely to the film’s sounds, especially Robbie Robertson’s dazzling score, which innovatively incorporates Indigenous forms, contemporary rock rhythms and more familiar cinematic orchestral sounds. Robertson, who tapped into his Mohawk roots in the latter decades of his musical career, composed this score in a way that is mostly quite spare and sometimes, for long stretches, silent. It is simply and stunningly beautiful. Sadly, Robertson, who previously composed the music for three other Scorsese pictures and worked on the music for several more following their collaboration on the rockumentary about The Band, “The Last Waltz,” passed away in August before the wide release of the film. Fittingly, “Killers of the Flower Moon” utilizes the fullness of his gifts in remarkable ways.

I am also looking forward to seeing the final two scenes of the film again on a big screen. I don’t know quite what to make of the penultimate scene, in which a stylized period radio drama fills in the missing pieces of what happened after the trial, but I do know that Scorsese’s cameo in the scene is truly affecting, a seeming testament to the importance this story took on for him.

And if you love great movie shots, make sure you see the last one in a theater. It utilizes an aerial panorama of Osages involved in making the film from a gathering a year after shooting wrapped. Having known that Scorsese had called for that gathering and filmed it, I speculated how footage of contemporary Osages — visible evidence of our persistence — might fit. Suffice it to say, that shot and the newly-made anthemic drum song that drives it were bigger, better and more memorable than anything I could have imagined.

For all that, I still can’t shake the sense that something is missing. Scorsese told the audience at the Osage community advance screening I attended in July that his goal was to tell our story in the way we wanted it told. That sounds noble, but also something like what he did in “Kundun,” his 1997 biopic about the Dalai Lama and the suppression of Tibetan independence. Neither audiences nor critics were very fond of that film, perhaps because it’s easy to come away wondering if admiration and reverence for the Dalai Lama stood in the way of a film with sharper edges and elbows. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is not esoteric in the way “Kundun” is, so perhaps it awaits a different fate. I am guessing many will see it and that plenty will fall for it in a big way. I wish I was one of them, but the film’s visual and aural seductions left me with the sinking realization that this is a whodunit that never gets around to revealing the actual killers of its title.

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