Human Weakness in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

When the great Martin Scorsese makes a movie—or as he calls it, a picture—it is safe to assume it will be of epic proportions. His latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, certainly fits that description, and its length (3 hours and 25 minutes) is only a small part of what makes it so.

Based on an eponymous 2017 non-fiction book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the true story of William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), a wealthy Oklahoma rancher; Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), Hale’s nephew; and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who marries Ernest.

The year is 1921, and the Osage Indians have discovered oil reserves on their land. They quickly become quite wealthy but white men want a piece of that wealth as well. They descend upon the prairie land in hopes of marrying Osage women, so they can cash in on the oil reserves via insurance policies.

Hale has established himself as the pillar of this community. He is a friend of the Osage people, or at least, this is how he has presented himself. In reality, however, his greed and complete disregard for the sanctity of human life reveal a different nature—that of an organized crime boss who orchestrates corruption and mass murder.

His nephew, Ernest, has just returned from his military service in World War I. Without prospects, he comes to his uncle’s home in hope of finding a job. Ernest is a deeply and easily impressionable man. He has no solid character, and it proves to be his downfall.

There is something strange going on at the Osage reservation as members of the tribe are dying, either from unexplained illnesses or murder. Unsurprisingly, no one is investigating the murders. Many Osage women are left to fend for themselves.

Hale plants a seed in Ernest’s mind to marry one of the Osage women, Mollie. After a rather strange and awkward courtship, Ernest and Mollie marry, and have three children. In the meantime, Hale continues his spree of crime and murder (which includes two of Mollie’s sisters). Ernest is not free of guilt because he is complicit in all the crimes.

It appears that Ernest truly loves Mollie but at the same time he is resigned to slowly killing her with insulin laced with poison under the auspices of taking care of her diabetes.

Eventually, justice comes to the Osage Nation when the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation comes to investigate the murders. One by one the perpetrators, including William Hale, are arrested, tried, and sentenced for their crimes against the Osage people.

David Grann’s book about this bleak time of American history focuses on the mystery of the Osage murders. Scorsese faced an enormous task in adapting the book, and in order to make the story more palpable and personal, he chose to make the marriage of Ernest and Mollie a central point of the film.

In addition, Scorsese’s intent was to bring to light the enormity of these crimes. As he said at a press conference, “What I wanted to capture, ultimately, was the very nature of the virus or the cancer that creates this sense of a kind of easygoing genocide. When there is betrayal that deep, and we know for a fact that it was that way, there’s our story.”

Scorsese here deals with many of the previous themes that he has explored, such as family loyalty and organized crime. As in most of his films, the violence and murder are swift. The murder victims are treated like garbage to be disposed of, and the perpetrators are either calm (De Niro’s Hale), drunk on insanity and evil, or simply weak.

Again, it was no easy task to adapt Grann’s book. Scorsese has been upfront on the process of making this film. In an interview with the film critic, Richard Brody, Scorsese said the script went through many revisions. Once it was decided DiCaprio would play Ernest and not the FBI agent, Tom White (as it was originally intended), everything changed. Scorsese did this at the suggestion of DiCaprio himself, and he changed the focus of the story at the suggestion of Mollie’s great-granddaughter, Margie.

As the filming progressed, Scorsese consulted with many Osage Nation members as well, and began tweaking the script here and there. When an Osage consultant suggested a change, Scorsese did it. These usually suggestions usually involved specificity about Osage customs.

Predictably, not everyone is happy with the result. Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant and a member of the Osage tribe, has said that Scorsese’s film did not succeed completely. He had hoped that the story would be told from Mollie’s perspective, and he thinks that “it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese not being Osage I think he did a great job representing our people. But this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart. And they kind of give him this conscience and they kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s beyond abuse.”

Killers does render Ernest the main character. As we watch, we hope that he will understand the error of his ways, but he remains a weak and pathetic little man. DiCaprio’s performance is superb. He allows this imagined version of Ernest to completely inhabit his being in the same way he gave himself fully to the role of Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator. DiCaprio’s talent as an actor keeps getting better as he ages.

It would be unfair and ignorant to not mention the small yet powerful performances by John Lithgow as a prosecutor and Brendan Fraser as a defense attorney representing William Hale. Lithgow’s incredible presence can render a few lines of dialogue utterly grave and captivating. 

But there is something off kilter in Killers. There are too many voices, too many perspectives, and yet many of those voices get lost in the cacophony of pure evil and yes, absolutely intended “soft” genocide. It seems as if Scorsese wanted so badly to tell the story of this grave injustice that his compassion was overflowing and, as a result, he did not make strong choices. This film is deeply personal for him. In fact, it is framed by Scorsese’s introduction and conclusion, in which he and his narration becomes part of the film.

Despite the sometimes-meandering quality of the film, it is shot beautifully and subtly. Silence plays a big part also, especially in the ways Ernest and Mollie interact—two people from very different backgrounds coming together, and partially not knowing what to do with each other’s respective ontologies.

There is also a clear message in the film—weakness is evil. Ernest is frustratingly weak, and this lack of personal constitution elicits feelings of disgust. There is no such thing as a non-guilty party; almost everyone is complicit in these murders because they either committed the crimes or simply remained silent.     

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