“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone. It is one of the most anticipated films of 2023.
The script was written by Scorsese and Eric Roth, a master of epic storytelling (“Forrest Gump,” “A Star is Born,” “Dune).
DiCaprio and De Niro are two regular Scorsese collaborators who can tell an entire story with one look. Critics are saying this is DiCaprio’s best performance of his career.
In the arts, we say that to become a master, you have to study with one. Relative newcomer Lily Gladstone, raised in Montana’s Blackfeet Nation, has now studied with four of the best. This is her star turn. She is going to be everywhere now in a great triumph for the First Nations.
Scorsese is 80. This may be his last film, although he says he’s not done yet. When you get older, especially if you have some success in life, you start to think about giving back. After exploring his Italian roots and beloved New York City, the master filmmaker turns his eye to our American roots.
The Osage Murders
Based on the David Grann book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” the film tells the true story of serial violence, in the 1920s, against members of the Osage Nation in Osage County, Oklahoma, after oil was discovered under their land.
The Osage Nation is an iconic Native American Great Plains tribe. Their land originally included large portions of the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, but they were eventually forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma, now called Osage County. The powers that be thought they were giving the Osage the worst land, but the discovery of oil beneath it changed everything.
The 2,229 people registered with the Osage Nation in 1907 were given “headrights.” That meant they each received a share of the mineral wealth taken from their land. This made the Osage some of the richest people in the United States almost overnight.
The Osage suddenly had money, but little political or legal power. White businessmen and politicians controlled the banks and all the Osage financial paperwork. They cheated the Osage at every turn.
There was a lot of intermarriage to tap into that wealth. A series of suspicious murders from the 1910s-1930s peaked in what is known as the “Reign of Terror” from 1921-26. Well over sixty full-blood Osage were murdered. This attracted the attention of the Federal security agency which later became the FBI.
Most of the murders were unsolved, but eventually one person, a political boss named William Hale, a rancher who made his fortune ripping off the Osage, was convicted of one murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The Killers of the Flower Moon
This is really a love story set in the panoramic Great Plains at a time of great change in American history.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to town after returning from World War I. His powerful uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) suggests he marry an Osage woman.
Ernest marries Mollie (Lily Gladstone). She is clear-eyed about why he married her, but they really are in love.
This is the first time Scorsese made a woman his film’s central character. Lily’s performance is the heart of the story. She makes you feel viscerally what it is like to be a Native woman in a white man’s world without overacting. It’s very hard to steal the show from DiCaprio and De Niro, but Gladstone does. She is a star now.
Osage are dying under mysterious circumstances one-by-one, in ways that leave their headrights to “King” Hale and his associates. Hale talks a good line, but behind the scenes is manipulating everyone. De Niro obviously patterns his character after a famous American politician.
Members of Mollie’s family start dying. Her husband Ernest is a weak man, controlled by his uncle. But he starts to understand what is going on and is conflicted. This is his wife, a woman that he loves and who trusts him. He is caught between love and hate.
Eventually Tom White (Jesse Plemons) shows up from the Bureau of Investigation, and the story takes an unexpected turn into a courtroom drama.
This is a searing, epic film that will grab your heart and squeeze it to the last drop. It’s the kind of film you want to watch over and over again, because it is a multidimensional masterwork, a case study for future filmmakers, a film that teaches without preaching.
Few Americans understand what was done to the First Nations, and continues to be done to Indigenous Peoples and people of color across the Americas. This is one story, but there are many.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a visceral tale about who we are as Americans. We can’t change the past, but we can change how we relate to it. This love story, lovingly told, is a great and honest way to understand.