Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of The Flower Moon’ narrates the American genocide of the Osage Nation

By Greg Karp, Oct. 31, 2023

Martin Scorsese’s filmography of traditional gangster and historical dramas have led him to tell the true story about a string of American murders that went unnoticed and unsolved in the early 20th century.

The film opens with a group of Osage men discovering an erupting oil well and rejoicing in dance as black droplets fall onto their bare skin. The camera lingers on them for a brief moment before the screen fades to black to reveal the ominous title card, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

What follows in this true crime western is a horrific set of historical events centered around the senseless killings of 60 Osage Native Americans during the 1918-1931 Reign of Terror.

Set in the 1920s, the film picks up 45 years after the Osage Nation purchased and settled on a reservation in North Central Oklahoma Indian Territory. After the discovery of oil on the reservation, the Osage rose to rank among the wealthiest people in the world, attracting the attention of white men looking to steal their wealth and erase their identities.

Scorsese’s depiction of the Osage murders reveals the identities of the men responsible as opposed to David Grann’s whodunit approach in his 2017 best-selling novel of the same title.

The film follows a relationship between an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle played by Lily Gladstone and white World War I veteran, Ernest Burkhart played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

William K. Hale, a wealthy rancher and uncle to Burkhart played by Robert De Niro, advises Burkhart to marry Kyle. The two men conspire to eradicate Mollie’s family and other Osage native peoples, in order to take possession of their oil headrights.

Greedy and prone to violence, DiCaprio portrays Burkhart as a man without a conscience and who blindly follows orders from Hale. Due to Hale’s political power, wealth and steady relations with the Osage, the practice of hegemony over his nephew comes as easy as it does over the Osage.

Though marrying Kyle to siphon her wealth and land rights, Burkhart soon falls in love with her and starts a family with her after killing off hers.

The film’s standout performance comes from Gladstone’s poised demeanor and mannerisms, letting the audience know what she is thinking through her eyes and subtle facial expressions.

A relatively unknown actor compared to her Oscar-winning counterparts, Gladstone elevates the film through her realistic portrayal of a woman witnessing the genocide of her people.

Both DiCaprio and De Niro give solid performances but fall short of Gladstone’s uncanny ability to breathe authenticity into their respective roles.

Two cameo roles from John Lithgow and Brendan Frasier also appear in the film’s third act, adding little in terms of narrative substance during their courtroom scenes. Frasier appears to have walked into the wrong film set, overacting and spitting out random bits of dialogue, and Lithgow leaves just as soon as he appears.

The striking visuals of the Oklahoma flatlands, character close-ups and interior shots are the polished product of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.

Every scene perfectly encapsulates living in the 20th century American West, with Ford Model Ts littering the streets, characters donning period-appropriate attire and the ringing sound of gunshots.

Where the film falters is in its excessive runtime of three and a half hours, making “Oppenheimer” feel like a 90-minute movie. From overdrawn scenes between characters and shots that play out 10 seconds longer than they should, many scenes could have been cut in the editing process without changing the film.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a film that may test the patience of some audience members due to its long duration. However, the depiction of America’s lesser-known genocide of the Osage Nation is a testament to just how important the Osage Nation’s culture is – one century later.

“Killers of The Flower Moon” is rated R for violence, grisly images and language.

Feature image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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