January 2024

Not the FBI Story

Killers of the Flower Moon

Miles David Moore


The first fictional portrayal of the Osage murders, which were committed in Oklahoma in the 1920s, was a 1932 broadcast of The Lucky Strike Hour that Martin Scorsese recreates toward the end of his film, Killers of the Flower Moon.  Scorsese—who plays the announcer in that bit—uses it to reveal the later lives of the perpetrators and survivors of the crimes. It is plain in context of the broadcast that the victims—and, even more, their ethnic identities—are an afterthought in a radio show whose obvious purpose is to glorify the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director,
J. Edgar Hoover.

The Osage murders also figured in a perfunctory vignette in Mervyn LeRoy's 1959 movie, The FBI Story, starring James Stewart as an FBI
agent.  That film provides details of a few of the murders—those of Henry Roan and Bill and Reta Smith—and a few scenes of Indians driving or being chauffeured in fancy cars around oil rigs.  Otherwise, neither the portrayal of the murders nor the rest of the film offer anything of interest except for those who worship Hoover, who had script approval.

Scorsese's film is based on the enthralling 2017 book by David Grann, which is subtitled "The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI."  Written as a whodunit, Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon recounts the murders in parallel with the story of Tom White, the agent who supervised the investigation, and the growth of the agency under Hoover's Machiavellian eye.  Scorsese—who co-wrote the movie's screenplay with Eric Roth—includes White (played by Jesse Plemons) in the story, but only in its last third.  Scorsese's film is a whydunit, and the "why" is tragically plain: greed compounded by racism.

In the early 1870s the Osage were forced off their ancestral lands onto a barren reservation in Oklahoma that, in the early 20th century, was discovered to have some of the richest oil deposits in the U.S.  By 1923 the tribe was earning more than $30 million annually from the oil, and all its enrolled members were entitled to munificent quarterly dividend checks.  However, the money had strings attached.  Because the government did not regard the Osage as competent to manage their own money, it appointed white "guardians" to oversee its management.  It became common for these guardians to intermarry with the Osage.  It then became common for members of the tribe to turn up dead—and for their white spouses and in-laws to inherit their oil rights.

Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon builds suspense by presenting the story through the prism of White's investigation.  The reader comes gradually to the horrific realization that all the nice, protective white guys in the oil town of Pawhuska—such as William "King" Hale and his nephew Ernest Burkhart—were in fact serial killers.  But in preparing his movie, Scorsese—especially after conferring with leaders of the Osage Nation—concluded that constructing the story as a mystery was an injustice to the victims, like telling the story of the Holocaust through the perspective of the Nazis.  Scorsese makes plain from the beginning that the Osage were being murdered openly, without so much as a pretense of investigating their deaths.  A man writhes and froths at the mouth after being given poisoned bootleg whiskey; a woman is shot in the back of the head by her husband as she tends to their baby.

Some commentators have been dissatisfied with Scorsese's version because it still places Hale and Burkhart—played by Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio—front and center.  A few have argued that, rather than Killers of the Flower Moon, a film should have been made of Mean Spirit, the Pulitzer-nominated 1990 novel about the Osage murders by Chickasaw novelist Linda Hogan.  However you stand in that esthetic and ethical debate, there is no question that Scorsese's film is a monumental achievement, arguably the greatest of his long career.  One could argue that three-and-a-half intermissionless hours are a lot to ask of an audience, but Scorsese more than justifies that request through the film's narrative
sweep, the excellence of the dialogue and performances, and the resplendent visuals as provided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and production designer Jack Fisk.  There is also a superb music score by Robbie Robertson, who died shortly before the film's release.

It was probably wise of Scorsese, from a sheer stylistic standpoint, not to make Killers of the Flower Moon a straightforward mystery.  His previous attempt at one, the 2010 film Shutter Island, was not entirely successful despite fine performances by DiCaprio and others.  Scorsese's strength has always been in creating an airtight world that imprisons his characters and defines everything about their lives.  All the elements of Scorsese's worlds are there from the beginning; there is nothing to detect, except the ways in which the consequences of his characters' machinations slowly close in on them.  Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence is just as trapped as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Henry Hill in GoodFellas.  Their circumstances and their basic personalities are the only differences.  In Killers of the Flower Moon, the circumstances are as hermetic, and as dire, as in any previous Scorsese film.  The suspense comes, in the case of Hale and Burkhart, from watching the noose tighten around them as they inevitably prove less clever than they thought they were.  For Burkhart's wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone), the situation is more perilous still: she innocently continues to believe in her husband's honesty while he is embroiled in plots to kill her relatives and to slowly poison her.

The actors in Killers of the Flower Moon—including many actual Osage—are uniformly excellent; one standout in the supporting cast is Cara Jade Myers as Mollie's sister Anna, a freewheeling flapper who becomes one of the film's most poignant victims.  The veteran Native Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal also has a moving final scene, the nature of which I prefer for you to discover for yourselves.  In the end, however, the film focuses on the central trio of Burkhart, Hale, and Mollie.  All three characters are fascinating, as written and as played.  De Niro's Hale is the most archetypal—the amoral villain convinced of his own integrity and good will.  It goes without saying that Gladstone's Mollie is the most sympathetic, but Gladstone keeps us fascinated by revealing Mollie's quirks while keeping our focus on Mollie's decency.  When she first meets Burkhart, she doesn't bother to hide her amusement at his clumsy pickup lines.  Later, as her grief and peril grow exponentially, she tears our hearts out.  Yet Gladstone's finest moment is at the end, when—through the barely perceptible movement of her eyes and facial muscles—Mollie shows she has come to realize exactly who her husband is.

Part of Mollie's realization is that Ernest Burkhart will never come to terms with who he is.  As the novelist Jim Shepard points out in a recent New York Times essay, this makes Burkhart a classic Scorsese antihero.  "Scorsese's movies have persistently left their protagonists in the semi -disingenuous state of sitting clueless amid the rubble," Shepard writes; by the end of Killers of the Flower Moon, Burkhart has created mountains of rubble, literally and figuratively.  Like Henry Hill, Burkhart loves the spoils of his criminality, but sees himself as an innocent.  He acts largely under Hale's orders, and he believes that excuses him; he also believes that he genuinely loves Mollie and their children, and he may actually do so.  At the end Burkhart's face bears the lumpen resentment of a not-too-bright child caught stealing candy, and who believes he had a right to the candy all along.  He symbolizes not only the usual Scorsese protagonist, but the entire history of White settlement of the West.

Appropriately, Scorsese begins and ends his film with Osage ceremonies.  Filling the screen with color and light, these ceremonies bear the emotion of a people who were dealt a hideous injury that can never be redressed. Killers of the Flower Moon helps to correct the historical record, with cinematic mastery that no viewer will soon forget.  At least it is Mollie Burkhart's story, and not J. Edgar Hoover's.


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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