Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic crime drama of a true story about an exploited Native American population. Piercingly poignant, Martin Scorsese makes visible to the world an out-of-sight piece of American history, riddled with relevance to contemporary society.
Set in the early 1920s, the film follows a cunning and charismatic businessman, William Hale (Robert De Niro), as he welcomes his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) to their family estate on the Native American Osage land in Fairfax, Okla.
William Hale, who goes by King, has a rapport of devout respect and teetering fear with both the white inhabitants and the Osage people. His wealth grants him more agency over others’ lives than anyone should possess. When Ernest arrives in Fairfax, King demonstrates that even family is only an asset with a cold welcome.
“You can call me King,” Uncle Hale utters to Ernest at the dinner table.
What follows is a story of greed, oppression, and love driven by Ernest’s marriage to Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a native of the Osage lands and member of the wealthiest family on the reservation. Having the only voice-over lines in the movie, it is through Mollie’s character that the viewer is invited to qualify King’s apparent benevolence and begin to question his motives.
Mollie is experiencing an internal conflict between her love for Ernest and Ernest’s relationship to King. Ernest’s commitment to his wife and family is pure but challenged by his uncle’s pursuit of wealth and brutal gaslighting.
“Mollie’s pregnant,” Ernest repeats multiple times at dinner one evening, awaiting a reaction from his uncle. King finally necessitates a smile after a loud silence, but causes viewers to question: Why isn’t King thrilled?
Much like many of Scorsese’s other works, murder was a strong motif in Killers, but it bore alternate meanings.
Viewers become desensitized to the brutal killings on screen as they occur, spurring feelings of disgust and nausea toward the white forces exploiting an already-ravaged, post Manifest Destiny Native American population.
“It’s so simple—the front is the front, the back is the back,” De Niro’s character argues with Dicaprio’s as they fuss about a murder cover-up gone wrong.
Unabashed violence culminates in an unapologetic testimony by Kelsie Morrison (Louis Cancelmi) during the legal hearings for the Osage murders, as Kelsie recounts his murdering of Mollie’s sister in a trivial and inconsequential tone.
The quaint and unassuming Oklahoma landscape slowly goes up in flames, visually and metaphorically, as the historical retelling of the murders of the Osage unfolds over the film, helping to emphasize the motif of violence and murder.
The powerful character portraits developed in the film take literal form early on, when multiple Osage members are offered typical Scorsese still frames of the portraits photographed of them by heckling white men trying to make a dollar in the town square.
The scene conjures images of immigrants and minorities hustling to make ends meet, economically struggling in foreign territories. Here Scorsese wanted the viewers to sit pensively with the faces of the innocent Osage people but also create a beautiful irony by the movie’s “other-ization” of white Americans.
In the context of Fairfax and Osage County, the white man is the working-class one, epitomized in Ernest’s role as an uneducated adult working as a chauffeur for the Osage. Scorsese highlights the toxic exploitative relationship between colonizer and colonized, and in this case King sees his nephew as a settler often sees a native: unintelligent and profitable. Notable too are the white maids with British accents that serve Mollie’s and other Osage families.
The factual history of the narrative demanded that the killings in the film vindicate not the characters responsible, but the audiences watching who likely had no idea of the evil that unfolded upon the Osage at the hands of American greed and ambition.