Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon is blowing audiences away and being heralded as an “unsettling masterpiece.” While the topic of the film might seem far from Scorsese’s usual fare, if we look closer, we see that his dark cinematic cannon actually prepared him to bring this story to the big screen in a number of surprising ways. So here’s our take on how Scorsese brought this almost-forgotten moment in history back into the light, and the most important detail he really wants you to take away.
CH 1: Bringing The Story To Life, Scorsese Style
When it was announced that Martin Scorsese would be helming the adaptation of The Killers of the Flower Moon, some people were surprised – in many people’s minds he’s so closely associated with gangster films that it’s often forgotten that he’s covered a lot of ground throughout his career. And while Killers of the Flower Moon might at first feel like a departure from his bread and butter, it’s actually an exploration of one of his most recurring themes: the evil in the hearts of men that leads them on paths of destruction in search of power. Clocking in at just under three and a half hours, Scorsese was more than willing to take his time telling this story, exploring all of its contours and dragging its nearly-forgotten details into the spotlight.
Though Oklahoma is far from the dark heart of New York City that many viewers associate Scorsese with, this film’s story does host two of his most common threads: corrupt authority figures and crime. The film follows the Osage Nation, in particular Mollie Burkhart (nee Kyle), as they clash with and become victims to the white settlers intent on stealing their oil-rich land by any means necessary (don’t worry, we’ll dive more into the historical specifics in a moment.) William “King” Hale, played by Robert De Niro, at first appears to be one of the only upstanding white men in the county – he has befriended many members of the Osage Tribe and even learned their language. But, of course, we soon come to learn that this was all a facade to cover up the fact that he was in fact the main source of the evil. Mollie and the other young adults of the Osage Nation have come to see him as a type of father figure, as he’s been around and (as far as it appeared) helping them and their families all of their lives; and when his nephew Ernest returns from World War I, he takes him under his wing as well. Like Frank Costello in The Departed and Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York before him, the false father figure pretends to be a safety net when in fact his corruption is the very thing putting everyone in danger, and he uses his influence and charisma to concentrate his power over these individuals and within the community at large.
Scorsese brings many of his favored stylistic choices to the film as well. We get a number of voiceovers providing us with extra dramatic context; though instead of being relayed over snazzy long tracking shots like in many of his previous films, here they’re played over slower, more meditative images, allowing us to really focus on what is being said. Slow motion is another hallmark of Scorsese’s visual language, often used to highlight a character coming upon their new object fixation. In Killers of the Flower Moon the slo-mo is used to pull us into moments of intense drama – forcing us to take the time to truly witness what is happening. One notable instance happens near the beginning of the film, when a few tribe members strike oil. As they dance in the raining black gold, it covers them in a dark omen of the bloodshed soon to follow.
Scorsese is also known to make cameos in his own films, and in this one he actually has three. His voice appears quickly in two bit parts, and then at the end he appears to deliver the end of the film directly to us from his own mouth. This in some ways recalls his part in Taxi Driver, where he appears as an agitated man who hops in Travis’ cab to rage about how he wants to kill his wife. That cameo sees Scorsese in a way backseat driving the scene – attempting to direct Travis (and thus De Niro himself) to a more visceral reaction. And in Killers of the Flower Moon it is us, the audience, that Scorsese is turning to, attempting to direct. This final scene showcases the production of a radio play about the events in the story after we leave our characters, and Scorsese walks out to deliver the final piece of the story, what became of Mollie. He notes that she did go on to marry someone else and live peacefully, and after succumbing to her diabetes was buried next to her family members. His final words, directly to the camera, note that her obituary did not at all mention what had happened to her, or that her entire family had been murdered. This is, of course, to highlight the way that this story of what happened not only to Mollie but to the entire Osage Nation was covered up at the time and then nearly lost to history. But also, by having Scorsese himself deliver the final message within the construct of this radio play, he underlines the fact that even this film is only a retelling, an outsider’s version of the events. The opportunity to really hear Mollie’s story was lost with her, and Scorsese is calling on us to not only take care to not let stories like hers fall through the cracks of history but also to listen to stories of marginalized people today and not just wait until they become “history” to take interest in them. This is underscored by the final shot of the film being not a recreation of the past but in fact a shot of modern day Osage doing a tribal dance, loudly and proudly celebrating their culture that so many have tried to rip away from them.
CH 2: Fact vs Fiction
Now let’s take a quick dive into the true story behind the film:
What does ‘killers of the flower moon’ mean? As is briefly explained in the film, the ‘flower moon’ is the full moon in May, the time in Spring when flowers begin to come into bloom – and in the film represent the growing prosperity and hope of the Osage Nation. ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ refers to the settlers coming in and destroying the flowering abundance of the tribe.
Did Scorsese really change what the movie was about before production? Jim Gray, of the Gray Horse community of Oklahoma and a descendent of victim Henry Roan, told CNN that when he spoke to Scorsese, he told him to, “e the director to make a film that this industry hasn’t seen. The one that they’re going to look at and say, ‘That’s the one we got right,’” and, thankfully, Scorsese seems to have taken it to heart. After meeting with Gray and other members of the Osage Nation and descendants of the victims of the murders, Scorsese decided to rework the film from focusing on special agent Tom White to instead focusing on victims themselves. Scorsese told Time, “After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys. Meaning I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me.”
What language is being spoken in the film? Why isn’t it always subtitled? In addition to English, there are many instances of characters speaking Osage throughout the film. In addition to the tribe members, De Niro’s King is shown to be fluent in the language and DiCaprio’s Ernest learns it and speaks it with Mollie after they marry. There are moments in the film where characters are speaking Osage and no English subtitles are shown on screen, this is to highlight that the core emotions of what is being said goes beyond language – we don’t need a translation to understand.
How did the Osage Tribe end up on the oil-rich land? – As settlers began to encroach on Osage Nation territory, the tribe was forcibly moved several times by the government. They were initially moved to this area of land because it was thought to be worthless. Once the oil deposits were found and the wealth began to flood in, that’s when the settlers decided that they wanted the land.
Did the Osage Tribe really become the richest community in the world? – Yes! The oil deposits discovered on their land were incredibly valuable, and when the payments peaked in the 1920s, they were “the richest community in the world at the time, per capita.”
Why were some Osage in traditional dress and some not? Some Osage, especially after coming into wealth, had begun to adopt popular styles at the time, while others were more dedicated to their traditional clothing. We can see this divide particularly well in sisters Mollie and Anna – while Mollie is more reserved and continues to don traditional fabrics and designs, the more brash and free-spirited Anna has adopted the lifestyle and dress of the roaring 20s. Many Osage brought both styles together, updating their wardrobes to more closely fit the popular styles of the era while still keeping traditional elements.
Why weren’t the tribe members allowed to control their own wealth? – During this era, racist systems were put in place to keep Native Americans from being able to access their own assets and have financial autonomy. The ‘headrights’ mentioned in the film refer to the conservatorship-like, government-run trust that got to decide how and by whom the profits from the oil were managed. As Aja Romano explained for Vox, “the government, via the Bureau of Indian Affairs, mandated that nearly all members of the Osage be appointed a white “guardian” who would manage (control) their money for them. Members of the tribe had to get permission to access their own bank accounts, have their purchases approved, withdraw their own money.” This system was split even further into ‘competent’ and ‘incompetent’ groups, where the ‘competent’ members were allowed more free access but anyone deemed ‘incompetent’ (usually full-blood Natives and women) had their access to the wealth much more restricted, as we see happen with Mollie in the film.
Why were the murders allowed to go on for so long? – It took so long for anyone in power to actually do anything about it for an abhorrent but unfortunately unsurprising reason: the white settlers stood to benefit from the deaths. It had been enshrined in law that the Osage Nation’s headrights to the oil fields, and thus the profits from them, could not be given away or sold – they could only be passed on to a relative or guardian after the Osage person’s death. In the flurry of interest in finding ways to siphon off the newfound wealth of the Osage for themselves, many white people had begun marrying members of the Osage Nation and then through that union often also became their “guardian.” And so then if the Osage person were to pass away, those land and oil rights would pass on to their white guardian. This cycle of exploitation was so valuable that settlers and government officials were willing to look the other way as the Osage Nation continued to be slaughtered.
Did William K. Hale really orchestrate everything? – After the FBI (at the time just called the Bureau of Investigation) finally got involved in solving the murders, they quickly uncovered the sinister truth: Hale had been amassing power for years and was able to convince everyone to go along with his murderous plot while hiding behind his guise of philanthropy. After avoiding consequences through witness intimidation, paying off juries, and more, Hale was eventually convicted for the murder of Henry Roan, Mollie’s cousin. Unfortunately, he was able to weasel his way out of jail time.
Did Ernest know about Hale’s plans before he married Mollie? - There’s no definitive proof of when real-life Ernest learned about his uncle’s plot to murder Mollie and take over her family’s oil rights, but it’s very unlikely that he wasn’t aware of the plans from the very beginning – though, like in the film, he may not have learned about the full scope of his uncle’s plans until after he and Mollie had already wed. He did plead guilty to assisting in the murders of Mollie’s sister Rita and brother-in-law Bill (and their servant Nettie.)
How did Mollie regain control of her money? – She eventually divorced Burkhart (after at first believing in his innocence) and eventually was able to successfully sue to end the guardianship. This allowed her to finally have complete control over her own finances and assets. She went on to remarry and live peacefully until she passed away in 1937 at age 50.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a triumph by one of cinema’s greatest directors, bringing to life an incredibly important page of history that had for so long remained hidden. After the production pause brought on by Covid allowed him more time to speak with the Osage Nation themselves and get their side of the story, it evolved into much more than what was originally planned for the adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name. Because Scorsese was open to changing the narrative to incorporate the stories of the people most affected, he was able to elevate the film from a by-the-numbers ‘whodunnit’ to a relevant, engaging historical work. And as he pointedly suggests directly to us at the close of the film, we, too, should make sure that we’re reflecting on why and how these kinds of stories have been hidden by history, and how we can stop that from happening in the future. Hopefully this film’s critical and box office success will open the door for Native American filmmakers to be able to get funding to tell their own stories, and carve their truth into history in a way that many like Mollie and her family were never allowed to.
Dargis, Manohla. “‘killers of the Flower Moon’ Review: An Unsettling Masterpiece.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/10/19/movies/killers-of-the-flower-moon-review-martin-scorsese.html.
Kaur, Harmeet. “How the Osage Nation Helped Martin Scorsese Make ‘killers of the Flower Moon’ More Authentic.” CNN, Cable News Network, 21 Oct. 2023, www.cnn.com/2023/10/21/entertainment/killers-of-the-flower-moon-osage-nation-cec/index.html#:~:text=Osage%20consultants%20worked%20to%20make%20the%20story%20feel%20authentic&text=The%20first%20frame%20of%20the,depicted%20is%20the%20Osage%20reservation.
Kesler, Sam Yellowhorse, et al. “Blood, Oil, and the Osage Nation: The Battle over Headrights.” NPR, NPR, 25 Mar. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/03/23/1165619070/osage-headrights-killers-of-the-flower-moon-fletcher-lawsuit.
Robinson, Tasha. “4 Things to Know before Watching Killers of the Flower Moon.” Polygon, Polygon, 19 Oct. 2023, www.polygon.com/23924620/killers-of-the-flower-moon-what-to-know-true-history-post-credits-scene.
Romano, Aja. “The Horrifying, Nearly Forgotten History behind Killers of the Flower Moon.” Vox, 18 Oct. 2023, www.vox.com/culture/23920002/killers-flower-moon-true-story-osage-murders-reign-of-terror-mollie-burkhart-what-happened.
Valdez, Jonah. “Martin Scorsese Rewrote ‘killers of the Flower Moon’ to Make Sure It Wasn’t Just ‘about All the White Guys.’” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 14 Sept. 2023, www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2023-09-13/martin-scorsese-rewrote-killers-of-the-flower-moon-to-make-sure-not-all-white-guys-lily-gladstone.