In recent interviews promoting his Western Osage epic Killers of the Flower Moon, perhaps cinema’s most universally beloved filmmaker Martin Scorsese has begun contending with the sobering fact of his own endurance, both artistic and mortal. The frankness with which Scorsese has been talking about his place in a world he has become less and less understanding of in his old age; both with regards to the root-and-branch reformation the cinematic landscape has undergone over the course of his long career, and the seemingly perpetual deterioration of a world that seems to be inhaling crises as if it were from an oxygen tank, has illuminated just how even through wise eyes as his are, it is becoming increasingly difficult to morally rationalise a social and political environment a waft with senselessness. These themes of disillusion have become more and more prevalent in Scorsese’s work as he approaches his own very twilight, as his late-in-life angst has come to charge the final works of a genius fully aware of how close he is coming to the end of his rope. He speaks of the world in his new picture as one “where the level of corruption is so deep that the society is not rooted in morality or any kind of spirituality” in a recent interview with GQ, wondering whether or not that is what human nature just might be.
If his funereal gangster epic The Irishman (2019) was a rumination on how men break themselves over generational histories, Killers of the Flower Moon is an interrogation on the foundations of American history and the role of how discussing the nightmares of her past is the only way to authentically understand her history and her present. It shows how removing the skeletons from a country’s past can work to bring to life the souls of those who were so cruelly robbed by rapacious institutions whose lineage lasts long into the present.
In many ways, on paper, one might become concerned on premise alone that Scorsese’s film, by means of its white protagonist, would go on to take an outsider’s perspective on one of the most tragic and infuriating episodes in American history, one so culturally specific to a totally silenced community. But Ernest Burkhart’s character (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes you both into the Osage community and also into the belly of the beast of those who sought to destroy them. He serves as a crucial fulcrum point in the storytelling of the piece, as the film is able to portray with devastating detail the emotional toll of the crimes committed, but also rigorously depict the pernicious extent to which the people who perpetrated the murders pre-meditatedly manipulated an indigenous population who had taken them in with generosity. The systematic extermination of an entire race heeded by an unfettered entitlement, with the notion of ‘keeping wealth in the family’ sounds more disturbingly eugenic than earnestly domestic. Ernest has a moral and philosophical dilemma that he finds himself caught in the headlights of, despite clearly not possessing the intellectual or introspective acumen to handle either astutely. He is clearly unable to resolve the conflict of loyalty strictly governed by his own impulses.
Ernest wrestles between two overwhelming influences in his life. Firstly, Bill Hale (played with sinister command by a rejuvenated Robert De Niro), his conspicuously doting and intimidatingly imposing uncle with considerable political and financial influence over Osage County. Secondly, the Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy, fierce and well-assured young woman who captures the heart and imagination of Ernest from the moment she sashays into his lowly cab. The way that Hale penetrates his and Mollie’s relationship creates the film’s emotional conflict but never obscures the tenderness or ugliness of either side of Burkhart’s duality. The film creates a romance that serves as a tragic metaphor for an unfathomable exploitation, despite retaining a tender authenticity that only makes its tragedy all the more powerful emotionally and thematically.
Ernest totally collapses under the spell of his uncle, the self-crowned ‘King of the Osage’, as he storms between family of home and family anew, bizarrely seeming to never draw much of a correlation between the implications of his actions in each corresponding camp. Ernest is one of Scorsese’s most confusing protagonists, maybe his most nervous since After Hours (1985), with his loyalties lying in diametrically opposite directions from scene to scene, not particularly because he is of shifting intention, but instead because he craves the security that both lives give him. This vulnerability is not necessarily evil, but his weakness makes him considerably complicit. This is a character trait that in a worse film might frustrate an audience, but in Killers of the Flower Moon, serves to work as a haunting metaphor for accountability for Ernest. He loudly dedicates himself to protecting his wife and children in moments of pride and stupor while simultaneously sleep-walking through an indigenous population’s systematic extermination, never waking up to the blood on his hands until all is far, far too late, with so much of this turbulence is communicated through a stunningly withered performance by a career-best DiCaprio. The feckless, wiry impulsivity that has allowed DiCaprio to work so well as an anxious spark plug in Scorsese collaborations, especially in his chaotic turn as a deeply sick undercover cop in The Departed (2006), is afforded a new dimensionality that doesn’t only bring breadth to the character, but also a depth to DiCaprio’s surprisingly egoless performance that harnesses just how well he’s able to play pathetic next to pitifully empathetic. Like most of Scorsese’s men, Ernest is certainly not good, but he is fascinatingly complex.
However, despite Killers of the Flower Moon’s structural pivoting around the crises of the Ernest character, it’s as the burgeoning weight of sorrow builds with every Osage body that begins to pile on top of each other that Scorsese’s film becomes much less about crises and panic and much more deeply about loss and a bereaved sadness. It is so devastating as a piece given how much of its time is given to its sense of grief, the immediate grief of its characters in the face of horror, and once it reaches its final moments, the grief at the loss of its tragedy to a time that never wanted their story written into history at all. It is Lily Gladstone’s performance that holds the far-reaching scope of the film together both politically and emotionally, with Gladstone over the course of the film being demanded to present power and pain with the punishing ferocity that the subject matter requires. Ultimately, she comes to serve as the film’s greatest and most resonant pillar of poignance, as her character and family are punished and butchered for capitalist sport by Bill Hale and his cohorts. Hale’s callousness is only being made even more upsetting by the physical and emotional deterioration of Mollie at his and Ernest’s hands.
Gladstone is poignant in both close-quarters intimacy and traumatised resilience, with her performance spiritually guiding the film’s disentangling of the tenderness, exploitation and genuine romance of a relationship that is the soulful core and desperate tragedy of a film that depicts pure corruption in its most upsetting form. Maybe Killers of the Flower Moon’s greatest achievement is in how little you think after the credits roll of the intricate crime plot the film follows, and more so the anguish on the faces of the indigenous families on which those very plots brutally befell.
Maybe the most arresting images in Scorsese’s wide but remarkably sensitive film are in fact those of Lily Gladstone wailing in the face of grief and steeling with vindictiveness in the face of her and her kin’s all-too-close tormentors. In the end, what is so upsetting about Killers of the Flower Moon is that it depicts a story that is true and uncomfortably resonant today. There’s no rhyme or reason to the atrocities it depicts beyond greed and bigotry, which might make its villainous characters seem thin if that isn’t the most accurate representation of the white pillagers whose violence was nothing more than a means to their own vicious ends.
If this is the final film from Martin Scorsese, he can rest knowing that his final statement will live long into an American future that owes an insurmountable degree of gratitude towards his contributions to the cinema and to the world at large. More importantly, he has used his indelible platform to spotlight one of the great buried ills of a country built from the foundations resourced from crimes of this magnitude, never trying to cleanse the soul of his country through a grand, operatic cine-confession, but instead bringing to life those souls who she so cruelly robbed. Its anti-triumphant final moment is a caustic middle finger to malevolence for yesterday, and crucially for today.
Edited by Martha Knox, Co-Film & TV Editor