Cinema as Sacrament: The Limitations of "Killers of the Flower Moon"

Martin Scorsese's epic dramatization of the Osage Indian murders audaciously struggles with its own inability to depict racist crimes.
Adam Piron

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023).

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, by its own admission, is ultimately a failure, but that’s also where the film is at its most provocative. Taking on an infinite scroll-like structure also found in Silence (2016) and The Irishman (2019), Scorsese's latest historical epic windingly adapts itself to his troubled reflections and their offshoots. In the film's contours, the 81-year-old filmmaker endeavors to explore one of America’s darkest chapters in order to comprehend its nature, and every attempt to understand points back to failure and its sundry manifestations in relation to justice, humanity, and even the artist’s chosen medium itself. It’s a gargantuan feat, one that finds Scorsese descending into a bottomless pit. 

A cinematic lamentation, Scorsese paints a historical epic of the Osage Indian murders, a series of killings that took place from the 1910s through the 1930s in Eastern Oklahoma. Members of the eponymous tribe were murdered by white settlers, seeking to steal their oil claims from their reservation lands. For a time, the Osage were the wealthiest people on earth per capita, which in turn led to a black gold rush for their exploitation. Central to this was a system of federally-imposed conservatorship placing the Osage under the protection of white “guardians,” a discriminatory policy that deemed the Osage incompetent to manage their own fortunes. These conditions led to white settlers making a boomtown out of the reservation border town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, in which everyone from doctors to bootleggers was eager to abuse the situation that the Osage were mired in, at once a cage and a death trap engineered for whites to secure their oil rights. 

By nullifying any of the procedural conventions of its source material (in Scorsese's words: “'s not a whodunnit, it's who didn't do it”), Killers becomes a meditation on a particular American brand of evil, one that’s inextricably foundational. Fairfax became a moral cesspool for the worst of human instincts, and Scorsese ventures to chart the sprawl of crimes committed and the depths of greed and self-denial that sustained them. Clocking in at three and a half hours, the runtime is a testament to Scorsese’s inability to fully track these transgressions because he’s in effect surveying a surface without boundaries. The attempt to fully comprehend the stain of these ills on society, as well as that society's collective complicity, becomes something like a form of penance, a reflection of the director’s well-known Catholic-influenced concerns. The wages of sin is a driving force within Scorsese’s oeuvre and this epic finds him taking on the mantle of Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet,” imploring his nation to acknowledge and repent for the blood in which it was forged. 

By focusing on the marriage of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his diabetic Osage wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone), Scorsese utilizes a familiar framing to navigate this spiritual miasma. Played by DiCaprio at his most grotesque, Ernest is a near-illiterate imbecile and the eyes through which the narrative is predominantly filtered. Along with the other interlopers hoping to get their runoff of Osage wealth, he’s arrived to seek employment from his uncle, William “King” Hale, chillingly embodied by Robert De Niro in his best performance in decades. Hale is the principal architect of this Osage genocide, a figure who, on the one hand, poses as their benevolent benefactor, and on the other hand, grips the region with an iron fist through good-ol’-boy despotism and ruthless violence. King strategically pairs his nephew with Mollie as part of a long game to bleed the tribe dry. As a counterpoint, Scorsese anchors the film’s soul and moral witness in Mollie through Gladstone, who delivers what is undeniably the breakout performance of the year. She imbues Mollie with a calm, spiritual strength and a deep well of humanity, a rarity in the film, to weather the incoming violence in the film's crescendo. The film tracks Ernest’s dutiful enforcement of King’s callous plan in slaying his wife’s family and other Osage, centering much of the narrative’s tension on his rationalization of his actions against his seeming love for Mollie and their children. 

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023).

Yet there’s a fuzziness as to what Ernest’s true end goals are in this scheme, specifically in the contradiction embodied in his relationship with his family. Scorsese is no stranger to marriage stories, but Ernest and Mollie’s dynamic is something new within the director’s ongoing exploration of failed matrimony. Unlike in Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), or Casino (1995), where couples spin out into ruin, Killers's union feels markedly more shaped by abuse, so much so that it is one of the marriage's foundational pillars. And this time, there is a racialized element: Mollie is a disabled Indigenous woman. The metaphor of this marriage as a personal history of settler-Indigenous relations is obvious, and the root cause of its disintegration is found within the breakdown of that mortar of all of Scorsese's unions: trust. The doubt that ferments between Scorsese's couples is typically a result of self-indulgences, but this has always been Ernest's intent, right on the surface. The true depths of the darkness seems to be beyond Scorsese, though, and his reticence to fully comprehend it in the vibrancy of his previous iconic pairings is felt in the haziness and intentionally unexplained motives within Ernest and Mollie’s relationship.

It’s no accident that the film is primarily told from the perspective of a white man who is a complete oaf. Very valid and worthy critiques have been made about the centering of this particular history through the perspective of a non-Osage character; however, for better or worse, the crosshairs of Scorsese's inquisition are aimed at shedding light on the legacy of white-perpetrated crimes. By its design, this film is geared toward a white American audience, with Osage viewers on the witness stand. Perhaps, in keeping with the idea of penance, the director feels the most honest expression of reconciling this history is through the perpetrator, rather than the victim, which in this case would have assuredly yielded its own procrustean results. One is reminded of Charlie’s confession in Mean Streets (1973): “I mean, if I do something wrong I just want to pay for it my way. So I do my own penance for my own sins.” It’s through Scorsese’s investigation of male idiocy, a recurrent trait in many of his central characters and primer for much of the human tragedy accenting his oeuvre, that Ernest Burkhart carves out a subspecies all his own. His simplicity appears to be the director’s sole inroad into gaining some understanding of the man's depravity and the web of complicity he binds himself in, a web which Scorsese extends to the country at large and everyone watching. Unlike King, he is not one of the masterminds of these ills, he’s simply happy to keep his head down and to do what he’s told. Burkhart is not God’s lonely man: he’s His most wretched and perhaps His stupidest, and the portal through which the director asks his intended audience to humble themselves.

Wisely, Scorsese eschews Ernest's precise reasoning and instead considers the ambiguity of his ignorance, and that of the audience’s, to be the last possible vestige of innocence on this Via Dolorosa Americana. Near the film’s midpoint, Ernest obeys his uncle’s edict to poison his wife’s insulin after she reaches out to law enforcement to beg for an investigation into the increasingly naked conspiracy. We observe Mollie endure a gauntlet of physical and spiritual agony, her face withering into a Falconetti-esque canvas of her people’s torment. She becomes the latest personification of a suffering servant presence—the only blameless party in the end fit to judge—that has become increasingly manifest in Scorsese’s late-career works that began with the Christ-voiced fumi-e tablet in Silence and more recently in Frank Sheeran’s daughter Peggy in The Irishman. After her rescue from near death by former Texas Ranger Tom White (Jesse Plemons), sent by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to expose King’s web of crime, Mollie experiences something of a resurrection. Her slow, arduous recovery brings her to stand firm and to finally confront Ernest in the moment before the film’s coda. It becomes something like an inversion of the Doubting Thomas scenario with the disgraced husband facing his wife who has risen from the grave, her wounded side now healed. She asks him to bear witness to his sins, and he refuses in a final display of shameful cowardice. The scene fades to darkness, Ernest's fate and those failing to acknowledge their complicity are sealed in damnation. If Silence laments spiritual certainty, and The Irishman grieves self-mythology, then Killers of the Flower Moon obliterates self-deluded blamelessness. 

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023).

In what has become the most discussed section of the film, Scorsese concludes the story by jumping forward to the late 1930s, where a recording of The Lucky Strike Hour radio show is being recorded in front of a live audience. On stage the cast sensationally recreates the events of the murders, and at the end, one of the players (Scorsese himself) reads Mollie’s 1937 obituary, somberly noting that no mentions were made of the Osage murders. That final moment, an intentional loose end, becomes a metatextual confession by its own director on his limits and the inadequacies of media to truly translate such horrors. Like a Klein bottle, the film turns back in on itself and returns to its thematic point of failure’s origin, inverting the dynamic of its filmmaker and audience quite literally with Scorsese appearing before a packed house and conceding to his limitations. This admittance is unexpected and disarmingly honest, albeit a natural consequence of Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth’s approach to translating this dark history. 

While the shape of the film is that of a call for collective atonement, it also provides a platform for the Osage to highlight an ongoing, century-old injustice that has long been overlooked. One can only hope for change, perhaps the film being its own entry point into that history or leverage for reparations for the wrongs inflicted on the tribe. In tandem to the critique of the film’s white-centered perspective is a similar discourse on the imperative of authorship, as it would be remiss to not recognize the irony of the dynamic of Hollywood’s adaptation of this chapter of Osage cultural history. The endeavor to recreate this story—a story about how the tribe was deemed incompetent to handle the wealth that was theirs, unless under the discriminatory constraints of a guardianship system—cost a whopping $200 million in Hollywood. Despite its historical specificity, such a film was only able to be made, and at that price, due to its interest to a famous white director, rather than that of an Osage or other Indigenous artist who might have greater proximity to this cultural heritage and perspective. This is not a disparagement of Scorsese or DiCaprio, whose very active embedding of the Osage in the film’s production and collaboration with them has been a mutual cause célèbre for the tribe and themselves. It’s only meant to point out that as much as Ernest Burkhart is an extension and indictment of a greater population and their complicity in sin, so is Killers of the Flower Moon a fragment of a larger ecosystem, one which perpetuates a continued uneasy and uneven exchange with Indigenous people. 

There is also the paradox of remediating historical ills by engaging in their graphic recreation. In the words of an unnamed Indigenous filmmaker friend of this writer: “More dead Indians on screen, I guess.” Despite these historical occurrences and with the exception of BOI agent John Wren (Tatanka Means), the Indigenous characters in the film are there for the body count, more specifically as logs for the fire meant to stoke white guilt. In regard to the nature of failure the film stems from and loops back into, this becomes another bend in its Klein bottle form. Scorsese's appearance onstage in the radio production absent any Indigenous involvement indicates his full knowledge of the media's history of mistreatment and erasure of Native Americans. It points to his own self-admitted limited perspective as a non-Osage endeavoring to fathom their pain and perhaps, despite his best intentions, even his own folly in attempting to do so. This ending also becomes the full realization of the film as penance, of self-inflicted pain in order to acknowledge past wounds, and the possibility of joy as a result, as seen in the film’s final shot: a God’s eye view of an Osage drum circle and dancers in present day. There’s a possibility that his confession may be stuck in the echo chamber of the industry in which it was created, stained by the very sins he wishes to call out, but one can only pray that Scorsese’s altar call charts something of a new way forward for the industry, Indigenous communities and the artists within it, as well as the possibilities of the medium itself. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

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