Killers of the Flower Moon: character study with themes of political, social and moral corruption

Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023)

At nearly three-and-a-half hours in length, “Killers of the Flower Moon” combines elements of revisionist / psychological Western, crime and legal drama film genres to examine a period in early 20th-century America: a period known as the Reign of Terror in Oklahoma, during which (1918 to 1931) a series of murders and suicides (or murders made to look like suicides) occurred in the Osage First Nation community not long after oil was discovered on their land and the Osage people became the wealthiest First Nation people in the United States. US law at the time did not permit the Osage (being non-white) to manage their newfound wealth directly or to issue leases to companies and individuals wishing to prospect for oil; instead, US Congress required courts in Oklahoma to appoint guardians for full-blood and mixed-blood Osage individuals to handle their wealth. (A better solution might have been managing the wealth collectively, rather than individually, with the Osage leaders or elders appointing lawyers or other experts to help them but that idea would have been too socialist, and it presumes that the Osage themselves were able to manage their own financial affairs, an idea anathema to a society premised on white supremacy at the time.) Guardians were often white local lawyers and businessmen. The potential for criminal activity proved all too appealing: many appointed guardians contrived to steal land, property rights and royalties from their Osage charges, resorting to contract murder in a number of cases. One common ploy was for guardians to marry Osage women and then murder their wives, maybe even the children they had together.

As Osage deaths continued to mount, the Osage elders appealed to the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner to the FBI) to investigate the deaths as local and state officials proved either incapable or intimidated by threats to find the murderers. A team led by Tom White discovered a crime ring led by cattle baron William King Hale to gain the headrights (property rights) of several Osage people. Hale had persuaded his nephew Ernest Burkhart to marry Mollie Kyle, a full-blooded Osage woman, and then proceeded through using his nephew and several others as accomplices to kill off members of Mollie’s immediate family including her mother and her brother-in-law. A cousin of Mollie’s was murdered as well and Mollie, Ernest and their children inherited all of the headrights of the dead family members. The FBI team discovered that Mollie was being poisoned by her husband as well. Hale, Ernest and their accomplices were brought to trial and Hale and Ernest were given life sentences in prison.

The murders were researched by journalist David Grann who published his work in the book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” on which Martin Scorsese and Eric Roth based their screenplay. The film spans the period from when Ernest (Leonardo di Caprio) returns from Europe, having fought in France during the Great War, and goes to work for his uncle Bill (Robert de Niro), to the trials held in 1931. Working as a cab driver, Ernest meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and the two gradually fall in love and end up marrying. All the while, wealthy Osage people are being killed in suspicious circumstances and the entire Osage community is living in fear. One by one, members of Mollie’s birth family die, some of them violently, and the Osage elders send a representation (which includes Mollie) to Washington DC to appeal for help.

The film seems very faithful to the book and Scorsese’s direction pays considerable attention to portraying towns and cities of 1920s America as accurately as possible to capture some of the period’s flavour and the sense of a new culture being born as the Osage revel in their new wealth and adopt Western lifestyles and values. Alas, the whites who flock to Osage County bring with them values of greed and personal ambition, and an attitude that the end justifies the means. Lead actors di Caprio and de Niro both do excellent work portraying the weak-willed Ernest and the manipulative bully Hale who works on his nephew’s credulity and dependence on him. Lily Gladstone also is to be commended for her work as the dignified Mollie.

In his sweeping portrayal of a community living in fear of serial murders in 1920s Oklahoma, Scorsese not only captures a snapshot of American society and politics but insinuates that a deep corruption has crept into Osage culture and society once oil has been discovered on their land and hungry white people start moving into Osage County to find – or steal – their part of the oil wealth. At the same time that the Osage are being undermined by their guardians – the very people they are supposed to trust – the Osage themselves are being corrupted by easy wealth and handing over control of their affairs to unscrupulous individuals. This is probably as close to criticising capitalist ideology and values, and their destructive effects on individuals and communities, as Scorsese dares to come in these days of neoliberal captitalism.

The film does move slowly for the first hour with much of this time given over to character development. Once characters are established, the film starts to move more quickly, especially after the FBI become involved and FBI lead investigator Tom White (Jesse Plemons) starts interviewing people. The climax when it comes is devastating; Scorsese chooses to soften its effects by casting the entire scene as a radio play, complete with a department of employees creating sound effects with different gadgets.

I can’t help but feel that through this film, Scorsese is taking a critical look at American society and how far it has come … or maybe hasn’t come, morally and spiritually, since the US Civil War. Political corruption at the local and state level not only has survived the war but has worked its underhand way through society, culture and politics unnoticed – yet once it infiltrates all levels of society, it produces profoundly damaging effects on everyone, even the perpetrators of evil themselves.