To call Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon a masterpiece is merely to note that it’s yet another amid a career scattered with masterpieces. Much of Scorsese’s oeuvre is equal parts alluring and disconcerting, following lustful men tumbling into a destructive life only to see their mistake too late. Scorsese is blunt about that allure—in Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, and other movies, there’s a real thrill that the protagonists chase and that the audience manages to catch a whiff of.
For some, this honesty about the allure of greed and power borders on endorsement, but that is too simple a read. Scorsese shifts the moral center away from the narrative center of his films, but he doesn’t disregard morality altogether. Rather, he keeps it at the edge of the frame to disrupt the connection between the audience and protagonist.
All of this applies to Killers of the Flower Moon, and yet it also becomes one of Scorsese’s most generous movies.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) has recently returned from serving in World War I and moved to Oklahoma to work with his uncle, “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). Ernest might presume that his return will lead to a gentle life: settle down, get married, start a family. Those presumptions would be only half true. Certainly, he soon finds romance, has children, and cultivates a home life. But he also stumbles into a greater brutality than any he’d known overseas.
The population of this region is largely made up of the Osage tribe, who have struck oil on their reservation and have thus found immense wealth. King has a strong relationship with the Osage, participating in their ceremonies and playing the role of benefactor. He admires the Osage, he says. But admiration and love are separate things.
What King loves is wealth, and he desires to obtain it via the land belonging to the Osage. He encourages Ernest to marry Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who, along with her sisters, is set to inherit an immense sum of money from her parents. It’s an ignoble motivation for marriage, but Ernest, for his part, seems to fall in love on his own accord. He and Mollie are married—but with greed and oil in the mix, can real romance survive?
If those pressures weren’t enough, a large number of Osage men and women have been mysteriously dying in the region. All of these deaths have either gone uninvestigated or had their investigations perfunctorily closed. As one Osage council member notes, “the money brought something else.” And the white people of the region don’t seem to care.
When Mollie’s sisters begin to die—of disease, murdered by gunshot, and killed in an explosion—the grief becomes profoundly personal. But it also means that Ernest finds himself on the receiving end of an ever increasing windfall.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a stunning work from all angles. The camerawork and production design are tremendous, detailing the disparate lives on display with acuity. When Mollie’s mother dies, Scorsese interlaces the funeral scene with images from the mother’s perspective. Serenity replaces the loud cries of grief, and the mourners are replaced with Osage ancestors welcoming her into a peaceful rest. It’s a virtuosic scene with a gracious touch. Later, as a fire ravages a nearby ranch, flames cast sinister orange shadows against the windows in Ernest and Mollie’s home. It magnifies the feeling of distrust eating away at their relationship.
Just as the moments of joy and beauty clash with the loud violence, the performances strike radically distinct notes that still form a coherent harmony. Ernest is, underneath it all, immensely pathetic. DiCaprio has undercut his star appeal before, but never as completely as here. He’s wrung out any drop of charm. De Niro brings a surprising energy to his performance, mixing sincerity with cunning and a dash of self-pity.
For all the bluster of these men, Gladstone is the counterbalance and, along with the Osage people, the moral gravity of Killers of the Flower Moon. Mollie is thoughtful, careful in her words and caring in her actions. She sees that the gaze of King is filled with something other than generosity; she recognizes Ernest’s cowardice. As their true nature is revealed, Gladstone balances a difficult combination of love and judgment in her performance.
As the soul of Scorsese’s film, Mollie embodies a cry of condemnation and lament over the evil all around her. Gladstone’s characterization resounds as a refrain from the Bible: the traps laid by the wicked will become their own undoing. As David cries out to God,
“Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.
I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.” (Psalm 7:14-17)
Scorsese is a profoundly religious filmmaker in whose films God is never fully excluded from the frame. An interweaving of Catholicism and traditional Osage ceremonies are depicted throughout the film, tracing out the births, marriages, and deaths of the Osage people. Scorsese cares about how the Osage suffer and how they cry out to God. And in that view, the wealth that Ernest and King collect is mere dust in their hands, and what remains is their judgment. Evil may seem a powerful means to an end—it may even appear victorious—but it will be the very undoing of the perpetrator.
But Scorsese, impelled by grace and generosity, goes further. Killers of the Flower Moon is interested in what comes beyond retribution. Scorsese moves beyond the violence, even beyond the artifice of storytelling itself, to consider Mollie’s personhood. He considers her life and death as worth reflecting on, both for its own beauty and for how it speaks to the resilience of the Osage. The cultural vitality that Scorsese emphasizes throughout the film carries forward into the present—the Osage, who have tasted the bitterness of evil, are still alive to tell their story. There’s a responsibility to listen well to such stories, and perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Killers of the Flower Moon is how well it both listens and speaks.