There was a twist to the story of the Osage nation, squeezed from their ancestral land by white settlers and relocated in the 1920s to a reservation in Oklahoma. The new land hid oil that began seeping out of the ground and made them very rich.
Director Martin Scorsese shows how the social order was overturned, with wealthy Indian women shopping for jewels while chauffeured by eager white drivers. One of them, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), nephew of the charismatic cattle baron “King” William Hale (Robert De Niro), ferries around Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and they fall in love. Hale gives his blessing to the union; more than that, he points out to dim-witted Ernest that Mollie is full-blood Osage and her “headrights” (share of the oil profits) would come their way.
The background is the historical fact of a succession of Osage murders in Fairfax, Oklahoma, at the hands of Hale and his nephew, and so many die it is hard to keep up. One of Mollie’s sisters, Anna, is lost to apparent suicide; another when her house is blown up. Mollie already has the indigenous plague, diabetes, and is getting sicker.
Scorsese’s epic cinematic feature confronts this shameful period of racialised ruthlessness towards Indians who dared to do well. It may be his keenness to fit it all in rather than focusing on that simplest of stories – betrayal within a marriage – that explains the film’s odd flatness. There is no room for dramatic tension as Ernest episodically organises murder after murder while barely covering his tracks.
Putting DiCaprio and De Niro on screen together is telling. De Niro is commanding as the white benefactor with the black heart who speaks Osage, honours Indian traditions, and justifies himself and to Ernest by quoting God’s will. But peak DiCaprio has come and gone, and no amount of face pulls and scowls substitute for emotional depth. There is little here to believe in; Ernest loves Mollie yet he tries to kill her, and she stays with him – but why?
The film looks magnificent and actor Lily Gladstone shines. She has excelled before in small roles (notably Certain Women) but as Mollie she takes centre-stage with solidity and grace. Mollie is no fool; he is a coyote, she says of Ernest – using the Osage name for a white man chasing Indian money – but he has nice eyes and makes her laugh.
The investigator sent to look into the murders, Tom White (Jesse Plemons), from the fledging FBI, is another standout, and Plemons’ straight-talking performance is never showy.
It is a jumbled bag. At almost three-and-a-half hours, the run time is formidable, and there are editing twitches and cutaways that jam in more story to worsening effect. Yet the music, by Scorsese’s long-time collaborator Robbie Robertson, is wonderful, the photography sweeping and elegant, and cameo from Scorsese near the end puts his stamp on a piece of ugly history he feels privileged to share.
Much has been written of the film as a masterpiece – and in its motives and some of its execution, it is. But by focusing so much on the evil white murderers, the Indian community stays largely out of sight, maybe from respect on Scorsese’s part. The result feels too one-sided and the film’s potential greatness as a racial reckoning is only ever glimpsed.
Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now.
Your support will help us continue the important work of InReview in publishing free professional journalism that celebrates, interrogates and amplifies arts and culture in South Australia.Donate Here