In the early scenes of Killers of the Flower Moon, Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio) receives an important piece of advice. He’s told to pay attention to the Osage because they don’t say much. Instead, they let silence speak for them. That way, truths arise in conversation without forcing conflict or making them play their hands. Other people, anxious or uncomfortable with this silence, may rush to fill the gap. The Osage call this chatter “blackbird talk.” Pay close attention here. While Killers of the Flower Moon is a Martin Scorsese picture, its power comes not through explosive violence or grand, gritty images (although the film obviously looks stunning). Silence is the film’s might.
Ernest returns home following his war service and lands in the care of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), a local businessman and leader of the town. Hale actually prefers it if his nephew calls him “King,” just like everyone else. The moniker offers a reminder of Hale’s self-imposed stature in the county. While the Osage have great wealth thanks to the lucrative deal they scored once it was discovered that their land sat atop rich oil fields, King Hale reminds everyone who the boss is. The Osage might have the money, but he has the power.
Ernest, meanwhile, may be the king of blackbird talk of Osage County. As Ernest takes a job as a driver, he natters away to an Osage client, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), who tells him that he talks too much, but she puts up with his chatter, anyway. Mollie becomes a key figure in Hale’s master plan. The King advises Ernest to marry Mollie and weasel his way into her headrights, which will pass the oil payments on to him and their children in the event of her death.
King’s indecent proposal, moreover, echoes the law of the land. Killers of the Flower Moon adapts David Grann’s book of the same name about the so-called Reign of Terror that claimed the lives of countless Osage in Oklahoma during the 1910s to 1930s. Targeted for their lucrative oil rights by greedy, envious whites, the true Osage death toll for this period is undefined. As the film and book note, violent or suspicious deaths went uninvestigated, like “suicides” with two shots to the back of the head, men poisoned by drink, or young people dying in the sleep. The latter deaths were simply chalked up to bad genetics.
The sprawling case defines the formative years of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, too. That’s a fascinating angle of Grann’s book, which tells the story with one act about the murders in Osage County, largely focusing on Mollie’s family members, who are picked off one by one, with their neighbours and friends upping the body count in between. The adaptation by Scorsese and Eric Roth largely favours and expands this portion. Part two of Grann’s book, the beefiest section, considers the Bureau’s case. That’s led by stalwart cowboy Tom White (Jesse Plemmons), who appears two-thirds into the film’s three-and-a-half-hour running time. (We’ll look at the third part later.)
The adaptation goes into the homes of victims, survivors, and killers alike (as does Grann’s book). There’s no big reveal about, either, who the titular killers are. Scorsese and Roth instead unfold the machinery of organized crime. Scorsese, after all, is the king of mob movies. He recognizes Hale as a Mafioso of the West. This gripping true crime yarn fits firmly in Scorsese territory. It’s a violent tale of America’s decay and the men who consume all in their wakes.
Hale’s bidding inspires Ernest to make some passes at Mollie. She just rolls her eyes, saying much without a word. But she watches him carefully, invites him into dinner, and tries to instil within him some comfort with her silence. Ernest just fills the void with chatter.
Marriage follows even though Mollie’s sisters advise her that Ernest is just another white man after Osage money. Life with Mollie’s family, moreover, is a cycle of tears, autopsies, and funerals. Her mother, Lizzie (Canadian veteran Tantoo Cardinal), and sisters Minnie (Jillian Dion), Anna (Cara Jade Myers), and Reta (JeNae Collins) all inadvertently lead Mollie to keep an especially watchful eye. Soon, Mollie’s own health fails her. Her eyes, ringed black and fearful, know what’s coming.
Mollie comes and goes throughout Killers of the Flower Moon, but Gladstone’s extraordinary performance asserts her quietly powerful presence. The force of the film comes through the actor’s eyes as Mollie observes everything around her. She makes painful connections about the violence that engulfs her. Watch how she looks at Ernest and how the warmth fades from her smile. Gladstone’s performance is one of masterful subtlety. Mollie carries herself with authority, easily deceiving characters in the story (and viewers in the room) that her silence equals subservience. Rather, she exudes the confidence that Ernest lacks even though society is stacked against her and rigged to favour men like him. (Mollie, for example, can’t access her money without a guardian present and must self-identify as incompetent.)
Killers of the Flower Moon complicates this portrait of an American tragedy by centring it through Ernest’s eyes. The man is a bumbling idiot and gullible fool. But he’s also a charmer as his pretty looks eventually impress Mollie. Moreover, DiCaprio gives one of his most interesting performances as the dumb and weak man through which the film sees the story. DiCaprio’s performance has a striking comedic element that challenges one’s uneasiness with the dynamic between his star turn and Gladstone’s more subdued presence. Ernest’s obvious love for Mollie and his eagerness to have a family with her blinds him to the horror of his deeds. Even as Ernest commits to slowly and methodically killing his own wife, he simply sees himself doing his uncle’s bidding in the service of an empire.
However, Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t invite sympathy for Ernest. The man’s a murderer, albeit not a very skilled one, and a willing pawn. De Niro’s characterization of Hale creates the face of evil, on the other hand, as the king is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. De Niro’s jovial demeanour ensures that Hale carries the all too familiar image of racism with a smile. He’s a memorable villain and among the meanest of mobsters that De Niro has portrayed in the Scorsese oeuvre.
An excellent ensemble, minus a goofball performance by Brendan Fraser, adds to this densely layered portrait of systemic violence. Cardinal, like Gladstone, conjures gravitas with few words as Mollie’s mother, while newcomer Cara Jade Myers makes a strong impression as the ill-fated Anna. Scorsese also peppers the film with character actors like Gene Jones, best known as the coin toss guy in No Country for Old Men, while Plemmons embodies White’s level-headedness without making the lawman a point of focus.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a sprawling tale and Scorsese takes a cue from Mollie when it comes to unfolding it. The film takes its time and is articulate with its use of silence. A pensive score by Robbie Robertson, a bittersweet finale in his long-time collaboration with Scorsese, adds a tone of simmering menace to the story. Drumbeats lend the film a suspenseful pulse as Killers asks what it takes to awaken to the violence of settler-colonial greed.
Scorsese, moreover, has long been attune to the complexity of representation in film. Many of his films, from Italianamerican (1974) to GoodFellas (1990) to The Irishman (2019) resonate thanks to the nuances of Italian-American life that reflect the experience that informs his work. What Scorsese does with Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t perfect—more balanced screentime between Ernest and Mollie, and less onscreen brutal violence, would be easy starts—but he’s sensitive to capturing an authentic portrait of Osage life in the 1920s, from the costumes to the language, as well as many elements of community and hardship, while tackling a sad truth of American life: empires were built with the blood of Indigenous families.
The director acknowledges the complexity of tackling such a narrative with a coda that replaces the contemporary reportage that closes Grann’s book. In a droll feat, the film ends with a true crime radio show. Actors reveal the fates of characters like Hale and Ernest, while sound effects and white actors voicing Osage characters reflect the challenge of telling this story through white perspectives. Scorsese gets the last word, however, and suggests that his tale might not be complete or perfect, but at least it addresses a story that’s sat too long untold.