Monday, November 6, 2023

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese's bloody, brutal, sprawling dive into the core of America

It feels almost pompous of me to attempt to review a Martin Scorcese movie. I mean, It’s Martin Scorsese! He’s one of the greatest directors in the history of film! I, on the other hand, am certainly no Roger Ebert. In some sense, it’s arrogant even; who would want my thoughts on a Martin Scorsese? I’m some guy in the Virginia suburbs of DC with an email job? But I feel compelled to; I sat in that theater for three and a half hours, and, like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, it barely felt its length, so enthralled I was.

Killers of the Flower Moon is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, released in 2014. I finished reading the book maybe an hour and a half before driving to the theater, and it was good to have all that in my mind so freshly. The book itself is a brisk read, rivaling the nonfiction work of Erik Larson, best known for The Devil in the White City about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the murders of H. H. Holmes, in its seamless blend of grandeur and intimacy, as well as its spellbinding prose. There are several little details in the book that Scorsese faithfully renders in the film, giving the proceedings ever more verisimilitude for those who have read just shy of three hundred pages of the history. I would recommend the experience (but perhaps don’t rush yourself as much as I did).

The book and film both concern the Osage Murders, the significance of which requires some explanation. The Osage Nation is an indigenous people who, by the eighteenth century, lived in what is now parts of Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas. But, as the Stars and Stripes ravaged its way westward, planting white settlers in the ashes of the peoples it had extorted, expelled, or exterminated, they were sent to live in Indian Territory. But, being America, whites simply were not sated with the depopulation of the rest of the continent, and as such they began storming into what would soon be admitted to the Union as the state of Oklahoma. But, as luck would have it, the land that the Osage had settled on happened to be sitting over the smelly, oozy slime that would power the twentieth century: oil.

Because of somewhat arcane legal reasons, the whites who wanted to drill into the plains of Oklahoma had to pay the Osage who lived there, as they had the mineral rights by law. As such, in the early twentieth century many Osage became fantastically wealthy, even having white servants (a stupefyingly rare thing in a society ruled by white supremacy as national ideology). It is in this topsy-turvy roaring twenties boomtown that a series of shocking and mysterious murders rocked Osage country, the state of Oklahoma, and the United States as a whole (this was the age of ballyhoo, after all), all targeting rich Osage or people closely tied to them. Such is the bloody, unusual panorama that Grann wrote about and Scorsese filmed. I had never heard of this before reading the book; it almost feels like something out of the alternate history I love, like a Native American version of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Right from the beginning, Scorsese knows that this whole situation is so very different from what Americans think they know about the indigenous peoples of the country, or the 1920s, or Oklahoma. The first hour or so of the film revels in immersing you in this setting, this topsy-turvy upheaval of American ideology, and fills it with period flare. The cars are beautifully redone, in particular, with a glamor that is doubtlessly part simple distance of time since cars looked like that, but more because of the wealth of this land, and of the people who had made the best out of their ethnic cleansing. The dances look right for the period, and there is enough big band jazz to get your toes tapping in the theater. Perhaps most stunning to me was the refusal to let the Osage characters speak in stereotypical ‘indian’ voices; rather, they all talk with drawls of varying thickness, which is odd to hear from those in traditional costume, but then you remember you are, after all, in Oklahoma, and it all makes sense.

The showing I went to had a recorded message from Scorsese played before the actual film. Part of it was him thanking the audience for showing up to a physical theater to watch the film (reminding me, surprisingly, of Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which is practically night and day when juxtaposed with this film), but part of it was about how much support came from the Osage Nation in the current day. Through the film, there’s the subtle je ne sais quoi that tells your gut that this is not just a white man’s fantasy. The culture of the Osage, almost annihilated, flourishes on-screen, lovingly recreated. Scorsese has talked about how the film was changed from focusing on Federal agent Tom White (played here by Jesse Plemmons) to something more focused on the Osage themselves, at the advice from the people of that nation he consulted. From what I can tell, every Osage character (and one non-Osage indigenous character) are all played by Native American actors. Scorsese demonstrates a level of care here that many lesser white directors would simply eschew for convenience’s sake. He is smart enough, and more importantly empathetic enough, to bring forth the rich culture of these people, and show the killings as the murderous white aberration that they truly were.

The cast is sprawling, as historical epics like these so often have (take Scorsese’s The Irishman as another example), but the story is propelled, more than anyone else, by its three leads: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone. It is the tension, the love, the hate, the greed, and the desperation that binds these three characters together, the three that form the whirring, raging dynamo that leaves so many dead in its wake.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, just out of the Army after fighting in France, here to take up an offer from his uncle William King Hale (De Niro). Both are not what you’d expect from each actor; both are villainous, revoltingly so by the end of the film. DiCaprio, ever the suave, confident leading man, is here a man who is in the thralls of a superior, who is divided in no small part due to his loyalty, and his sense of obligation, to his uncle, the man who brought him here and is in the process of making him filthy, stinking rich. De Niro was almost unrecognizable as Hale, and, having not paid too much attention to the trailers or the posters, I was not entirely sure it was him until the end credits, so good the makeup is. Perhaps more surprisingly, you will behold Robert De Niro delivering his lines in a thick Southern drawl, which I never expected. De Niro’s roles have certainly been more sinister, on average, than DiCaprio’s (his outing as a flamboyant pirate in the film adaptation of Stardust notwithstanding, an addition not present in the book that nevertheless improved the experience immensely), but here he is not a mobster, for a mobster is a thief who acts outside of polite society. Here, he is the sort of thief who constitutes polite society, who defines what ‘politeness’ and ‘professional’ and ‘common sense’ are, in a society with land theft at its bedrock, with a supposed gentility and generosity masking an utter rapaciousness, a sinister duality befitting an antebellum plantation baron.

But as famous as DiCaprio and De Niro are, the truly standout performance is Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman who grew up in black gold-induced splendor. She starts off with a haughtiness, a princess-like hauteur to her, as she gazes down on her dominion, seeing the white men who she to some degree controls and who to some degree control her. She seems almost aware of how utterly bizarre she is, a survivor of a continental apocalypse who nevertheless reigns over the destroyers, reveling in the irony as well as the more quotidian perquisites of wealth. But as the ravages of the murders rock her town and her family, the self-assuredness begins to slowly crack. She becomes a metaphor for the brief Osage ascendancy herself, collapsing under the crushing weight of manifest destiny, the sine qua non of the American national project.

Mollie is, naturally, somewhat taken aback at Ernest’s romantic advantages; why would a rich woman like her countenance a man like him? But they eventually swoon for each other, her wit and beauty enchanting him, his gung-ho confidence enchanting her. But the fact that she is orders of magnitude wealthier than him is not lost on either of them. Their relationship is genuinely loving, at least at first, and the two care for each other in sickness and in health. Mollie is sick, and increasingly so; she is diabetic in a time when the newest stunning wonder drug is this Canadian discovery called insulin, which is sent to her all the way from the true north strong and free, injected by doctors and then her husband. But Ernest is torn between his legitimate love for her and his addiction to money, the greatest American addiction, egged along by his uncle who loves nothing else.

Whoever wrote the First Epistle to Timothy (historians are agreeing ever more that whoever they were, it wasn’t the Apostle Paul) had a pearl of great wisdom:

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”

1 Timothy 6:10 (King James version)

It is the love of, the thirst for, the addiction to money that drives this film, this bloodshed, this rolling massacre. It is that greed that made America, for it was a business venture that planted the first English colonists in Jamestown and brought the first Black slaves to Virginia’s shores in 1619. But it is not just money, in its raw form, not merely accounting tables and bank statements. It was the caste system, called ‘race,’ by Spaniards and eagerly adopted by the rest of the European world, that was used as the cement holding the bricks of American enterprise together, that was upturned so utterly by the fantastic wealth of the Osage, whose luck in finding that oil rivaled that of Europe, who found the Americas to plunder before the rest of the world did.

So much racist propaganda is dedicated to pushing the notion that white supremacy is natural, inevitable, the natural order of things, and that anything else is at best a brief aberration and at worst a crime against nature. The Osage’s lucky break is living, breathing proof that such a social order is not inevitable, that Manifest Destiny was not written into the law of the universe, that an alternative is possible. That is one of the key thrusts of Killers of the Flower Moon, that the American national ideology is not the only way of living, the only way of being, the only possible arrangement of fortune.

‘Triumph’ feels like too light a word for Killers of the Flower Moon. In some ways, it feels like one of the great historical epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but it knows not to play into worn white supremacist tropes, so it feels strikingly, refreshingly modern. It is the rare film that earns a runtime of over three hours, and it is a hell of a ride. Now, if it only had an intermission, it would be perfect.


The Math  

Highlights: The whole thing. You can't make me choose a single aspect.

Nerd Coefficient: 11/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.