Evil Under the Sun
By Michael Koresky

Killers of the Flower Moon
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Paramount/Apple

In describing the latest film from a beloved director, the auteurist critic will usually either focus on how the film continues the themes, aesthetic approaches, and narrative interests of the director’s body of work or how it deviates from them—all the better to create the image of a filmmaker as artisan, eternally chipping away at the same block of wood. In the case of Martin Scorsese, despite the sense of protean discovery with each new film he makes, one is inclined to do the former (historical cycles of American violence, the ravages of patriarchal dominance, the discomfort of audience identification) as much as the latter (this or that one has more/less women than it “should,” this one plays by too many/too few genre rules, et cetera). While Scorsese’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon would be satisfactorily and compellingly analyzed for its fidelity to or disinterest in the elements one might normally consider Scorsesean, there’s something so singularly odd and self-sufficient about it that I’m going to do my best to refrain from summoning his other works in discussing it. Its distinct and daring lack of catharsis—particularly for a film that runs nearly three-and-a-half hours—might or might not be unique in the director’s oeuvre, but it’s the central emotional takeaway from a film that feels beholden to nothing more than its own making and the story Scorsese so clearly wanted to tell.

Based on the nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon: An American Crime and the Birth of the FBI, by author David Grann, Scorsese’s film does the work of historical excavation via a framework of domestic intimacy. Killers details, with hideous precision, the systematic murder of Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s by a conspiracy of greedy white men coveting their land and money, yet rather than a sweeping, “epic” account, Scorsese uses the formidable running time for something more discomfiting than an identifiable “procedural” or “thriller” might have allowed. By centering the marriage of wealthy Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone) to the white man Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a relationship defined by his unimaginable treachery and betrayal, Scorsese shows how the racist brutality of American history begins on the smallest scale, that the human capability for deception and self-justification breeds epochal, even genocidal shifts—microcosmic expressions of large-scale historical atrocity.

When the Texas-born Ernest arrives in Fairfax, Oklahoma, in 1918, soon after returning from fighting overseas in the war, he reconnects with his uncle and surrogate father figure, Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), a cattle baron who likes to boast of his avuncular relationship to the Osage locals. Scorsese and De Niro don’t seem particularly concerned with hiding the fact that Hale, who prefers his nephew to call him “King,” is an untrustworthy sort, with his performative sagacity and killer grin. (This is De Niro’s most demonic performance since Cape Fear, but also his most smiley since The Intern.) That the film’s prĂ©cis on the Osage people comes from this powerful white man (he demands Ernest read up on the tribe’s culture and language) is a pointed, unsettling acknowledgment of the ways in which history is commonly twisted to one’s own ends, how the past is reduced to fit the agendas of those looking to gain an advantage. And based on their unique financial situation, the Osage in nearby Gray Horse make for a unique and obvious target for avaricious whites: driven to this small settlement town in the previous century after being forced to relinquish their vast homelands in Kansas, the Osage became the prosperous inheritors of a small but oil-rich territory, making them the subjects of media fascination. According to Grann, “Reporters tantalized their readers with stories about the ‘plutocratic Osage’ and the ‘red millionaires,’ with their brick-and-terra-cotta mansions and chandeliers, with their diamond rings and fur coats and chauffeured cars.” Scorsese presents this information early on with economical flourish, placing it within faux movie newsreel images, which positions their unusual cultural status as a subject of fetishization and envy. It’s the first of many ways the film knowingly positions its own white perspective as othering and inadequate in its mediation.

Bill’s plans for his nephew become swiftly clear when he encourages Ernest to marry into Osage money and ensure his inheritance, yet his sinister machinations go far deeper and, as the viewer suspects, are connected to the ongoing rash of murders of Osage people throughout the area—none of which are considered important enough to warrant investigation from any local authorities (especially considering Bill himself is a deputy reserve sheriff in this borderline lawless western town). A layabout who prefers gambling and robbing to working for a living, Ernest at first takes a job chauffeuring wealthier locals, which includes Mollie—their friendly exchanges and growing mutual attraction allow Ernest to believe that he has entered into a relationship with her of his own accord, yet his uncle’s insistence on their consummation tells a different story. This sets up the film’s central tension around the nature of Mollie and Ernest’s marriage: how much love might have (could possibly have) existed between them? Early on, Mollie even articulates that she knows Ernest is out for money—though she defends it to her sisters by positing his gold-digging as pragmatism: “He wants to be settled.” Yet Ernest’s greed, encouraged and exacerbated by his uncle’s ability to mastermind elaborate deceptions and maneuver inheritance laws, is his defining trait. Somewhere in the complex dynamic between Ernest and Mollie lies an unspeakably grim articulation of the human capacity for self-justifying evil.

Born in 1886, after her people had already been relocated from their homelands, Mollie—her given Osage name, Wah-kon-tah-he-um-pah—is the gravitational center of Scorsese’s film. As inhabited by Gladstone, in a remarkable performance that goes beyond mere stoicism into being something more like, per Eliot’s Four Quartets, the “still point of the turning world,” Mollie is at once witness, victim, and survivor of the monstrous American narrative. The destruction of her people—and by metaphorical implication, the country’s Indigenous populations—is mirrored in the killing of her own family, most wrenchingly the murders of her sisters, Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Reta (JaNae Collins), accomplished via the chillingly dispassionate engineering of Hale. While many of the killings are filmed and edited with frightening speed—lives snuffed out in a half a second—the most sinister and disturbing element of the film is the gradual deterioration of Mollie’s once vibrant body. A diabetic, she becomes a “trial subject” for insulin, a new drug imported by Hale and introduced to her by local quack doctors the Shoun brothers (whose involvement in the plot against the Osage makes itself increasingly clear). As she weakens and succumbs to alarming symptoms, we are invited to feel a gnawing dread that her medication—administered, at her request, by her husband—is the culprit, not the cure. Her gradual and horrible debilitation—which, at times, Scorsese captures with an almost hallucinatory quality, as in a bravura bedroom sequence set against the outdoor blaze of a property fire started by the satanic Hale—becomes the film’s surprising rhythmic engine. In the hands of Thelma Schoonmaker, the film moves as though a lurching, loping march toward doom (an evocation of “wasting illness,” as the white locals dubbed the affliction of Mollie’s family members) rather than the whip-panning, history-as-spectacle visual assault one has seen in the director and editor’s earlier collaborations. That Mollie’s trajectory isn’t what one might expect, given this gradual descent, gives the film an added layer of poignant resolve.

It's difficult to articulate the uncomfortable position Scorsese puts us in—once again—by forcing us to spend such an extended amount of time with so unappealing a protagonist as the pathetic, unambitious, and grotesquely self-serving Ernest Burkhart. As interpreted by DiCaprio, a movie star who appears to be increasingly disinterested in glamorous or even remotely agreeable characters, Ernest stammers, awkwardly snickers, and wrenches his mouth into grimaces that look like completely inverted smiley faces. He’s the kind of man who knows he’s worthless from the get-go yet doesn’t let that stop him from pleading just enough ignorance to attempt some form of his own absolution. The latter section of the film is largely given over to Ernest trying to figure out how to save his own skin once the feds arrive, personified by Jesse Plemons’s patiently aghast Tom White. If he turns on his uncle, Ernest is told he might be able to escape punishment himself. Yet Scorsese’s film is disinterested in pedestrian narratives of crime and retribution—as the miraculous, pageant-like conclusion reveals, dramatizations of historical trauma, like, perhaps the very one you’ve been watching, are insufficient approximations of human suffering.

Of all the frightening and mournful images laced like poison throughout Scorsese’s film (an impromptu outdoor autopsy, a back-alley stabbing that happens quick as a wink), few have stuck with me more than the film’s twinned appearances of owls. The nocturnal creatures appear incongruously, indoors and during the daytime, as sentinels, the first as a representative of death witnessed by Mollie’s mother, Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal), the second as a harbinger whose implications don’t quite come to pass—at least not at first. In a film necessarily imbued with both Catholicism and Osage spirituality, the gesture feels both pragmatic and haunting; in Scorsese’s hands, it’s a genuine attempt at expressing the community’s inexpressible life force (its Wah’Kon-Tah) and its gradual destruction. It’s a film whose dualities—its dreams and nightmares, creation and chaos, Mollie and Ernest—are so inextricably a part of every moment that it feels like it grew right out of the land itself.