Writing about guns is a great way to make a living. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. But believe it or not, the subject matter sometimes gets monotonous. So, when I was asked to review the new blockbuster movie Killers of the Flower Moon, I jumped at the chance to do something different. And it didn’t hurt that Martin Scorsese directed the movie. I’m all about The Godfather, Casino, and, especially, Goodfellas.
It’s almost like a rule that Scorsese crime movies have to run over three hours long. This one is no different, coming in at 207 minutes. With that in mind, I splurged for the recliner and side table-equipped theater over the six-dollar budget cinema with the same seats I sat in back in the 1980s. So, fortified with a large, buttered popcorn and root beer, I settled in for the long haul.
A Tale of Malicious Greed
Killers of the Flower Moon is based on a true story. The title refers to Native Americans naming the May full moon the “Flower Moon” because it presides over the widespread blooming of spring flowers. But the story covers far more than a single spring season.
The movie was filmed in Osage Couty, Oklahoma, where the real events took place. The Native American Osage Tribe was forced from its lands in Kansas to northern Oklahoma in the 1870s, where the tribe purchased 1.57 million acres from the Cherokee. In 1906, as part of Oklahoma’s statehood processes, the Osage negotiated a deal with the US Government in which every full-blood Osage owned a 657-acre plot of land, including a “headright” entitling them to a share of the Tribe’s communal mineral rights trust.
There were minor oil strikes in Osage territory beginning in 1897, but the massive Burbank Oil Field was discovered in 1920, causing the Osage to quickly become the richest people, per capita, in the world. That’s when the trouble started, and that’s where Killers of the Flower Moon begins.
This is a story of how greedy non-Native American hucksters, posing as friends and benefactors, infiltrated Osage families through marriage, whereupon they murdered the landowners to gain their mineral rights. At least 24 people were murdered in what the newspapers called the “Reign of Terror.” Most of the victims were Osage, but one was a white lawyer who was perceived to know too much about what was going on.
Most of those murders remain unsolved to this day. Many were not even investigated because the victims were Native Americans. I don’t want to spoil the plot, nor the mystery of which side certain characters fall on, but it’s a tale of almost unimaginable greed that also speaks to the evils of true racism and the lengths to which some people will go for wealth and power.
The conspiracies run deep, with layer piling on upon almost unbelievable layer. Scorsese took a few liberties with the timeline, but the events, based on my research after the fact, appear to be accurately portrayed. The movie not only exposes greed and corruption but also the way that Native Americans were viewed as being subhuman, whether overtly or through unjustified patronizing.
Killers of the Flower Moon features two Scorsese stalwarts: Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom deliver as expected. De Niro plays cattleman William K. Hale, who dubbed himself “King of the Osage Hills.” De Niro, of course, is De Niro. I don’t think the guy is capable of a bad performance. He even has a very passable Oklahoma/Texas accent, given that the real Bill Hale was born in Texas.
Lily Gladstone plays Mollie Burkhart, the eldest of four Osage sisters who, between them, own the headrights to over 2,500 acres of oilfield land, making them very wealthy indeed. Gladstone is easily the most sympathetic character in the movie, to the point where I felt some anger and dismay at what was being done to her and her family. Mollie Burkhart, her sisters, and their mother were at the center of the land-stealing plot and subsequent investigations into the whole sorry mess. Gladstone is convincing as the good-hearted Mollie whose life is nearly destroyed.
Another notable performance comes from Jesse Plemons as Bureau of Investigation Agent Tom White. The Bureau of Investigation was the forerunner to the FBI, and the Osage case was among its first murder investigations. White was a former Texas Ranger who led the investigation, using undercover operatives to ferret out information from among the fearful Osage people. Plemons’ portrayal exudes the quiet confidence of a veteran lawman. From his first appearance, I got the impression that White had the situation under control. I hadn’t seen Plemons since his role as the chillingly conscience-free Todd in Breaking Bad and El Camino. I’m glad to have a better impression of him.
But DiCaprio’s performance is the movie’s centerpiece. The entire story is seen through his eyes as Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband and Hale’s nephew. Burkhart is portrayed as a man of limited intelligence who is easily manipulated by bad actors. We never quite understand his motivations, though he is clearly as greedy as anyone else but seemingly loves his wife. It’s easy to sympathize with the character, thanks to good writing and DiCaprio’s performance. But Scorsese periodically pulls the viewer back by showing Burkhart’s other side, where he engages in horrific activities to further the larcenous plot to steal the Osage headrights.
The character of Ernest Burkhart shows how weak men can be easily influenced to become bad men. Their weakness keeps them from standing against what they know is wrong. Burkhart struggles with what he’s doing, but he almost inevitably succumbs to the pressure to do it anyway. Even at the end, when it seems he has perhaps learned his lesson, Burkhart ultimately fails. DiCaprio is utterly believable in this role, and he portrays Burkhart’s downfall masterfully. He makes bad choice after bad choice, until bad choices are all he has left. DiCaprio captures that self-inflicted hopelessness perfectly.
Honestly, my first impression was that the movie was too long. I felt like the story could have been effectively told in about two-thirds of the running time. I still think that’s true, but after giving myself 24 hours to reflect, I think I benefited from the extra character development, which brought home how horrific the whole incident was.
If Killers of the Flower Moon was fictional, I might not take that view. But it’s not fiction. These were real people. Mollie and her sisters, Anna, Rita, and Minnie. Her mother, Lizzie. Ernest Burkhart, Bill Hale, Tom White, and all the others were real people. The movie uses their real names. The film was based on David Grann’s book of the same name. Grann painstakingly researched his work, so the information was there. Scorsese used that information, and his penchant for long movies, to show us who these people were. I think that’s important.
I occasionally wondered where the movie was going, but it had a more powerful impact after I had time for it to sink in. That impact led me to research the history before writing this review, which, in turn, caused me to order the book. That’s good stuff. Plus, I almost always prefer books to movies.
Odds and Ends
A few scenes jumped out at me as I watched Killers of the Flower Moon, either because I didn’t fully understand what was happening, or because they were so anathema to my modern sensibilities. In the former case, I was confused when Mollie, who was apparently quite wealthy, had to apply for money to pay for medical expenses and for a trip to Washington to ask for government help with the murder spree.
I later learned that the Osage oil money was held in trust for anyone deemed “incompetent” by the federal government, to whose representative they had to apply for major expenditures. This is an example of the unjustified patronizing I mentioned earlier. Mollie has to declare herself “incompetent” when appealing to the government official to use her own money, even though is clearly not incompetent. It was certainly humiliating, and Gladstone plays it well.
The official, Pitts Beaty, is ably performed by Gene Jones, whose syrupy condescension all but drips from every sentence. These administrators, as well as local white businesses, employed all manner of underhanded tactics to separate the Osage landowners from their money, as is documented in the film while curbing those same people’s efforts to spend their money on such things as medicine.
Despite being a historian, I was startled by a scene depicting a parade through the Osage town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, in which the Ku Klux Klan was proudly marching. The Klan marching in a 1920s Oklahoma parade was not so shocking. But Ernest Burkhart speaks to the leader, who I think was government representative Pitts Beaty (it was a brief interaction), exchanging pleasantries as if it were just another encounter in the street. It just seems strange to me in 2023, though I suppose it really wasn’t in 1923. I found it odd that Beaty could claim to be the Osage people’s friend and servant while openly leading a Klan march. But it speaks to the patronizing nature of certain people in that time and place. Author David Grann confirmed that the person portrayed was indeed a Klan leader but didn’t mention his name. Again, I think it was Beaty.
Finally, during the well-done courtroom scenes, when the perpetrators seemingly face the music, the sheer indifference about what they had done is palpable. Witnesses questioned about murdering Osage victims show no remorse at all. It’s almost like they don’t think they did anything wrong. The actors, including John Lithgow as prosecutor Peter Leaward, really brought those scenes home, once again showing the attitudes of the time. Grann, in a Rolling Stone interview, paraphrases a defendant’s 1926 testimony, when he said something akin to “We don’t see killing an American Indian today any different than we did in the 1700s.”
A persistent theme in Killers of the Flower Moon is the indifference to at least 24 murders in one small community over the space of about five years. As noted, most of those were never solved and many weren’t even investigated. That indifference persisted for years. Mollie Burkart died in 1937. Her obituary omitted the fact that her entire family was murdered for their mineral rights.
The primary conspirators, despite being sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, were paroled and one was even pardoned by the Governor of Oklahoma. None ever showed remorse, and at least one complained bitterly that he should have been rich. The injustice to the Osage people is paramount to the film’s message. Grann mentions in interviews that the Osage people are still bitter, and why wouldn’t they be? These were their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Grann relates how Mollie Burkhart’s granddaughter told him how she had no cousins growing up because all her aunts were murdered.
There are other themes as well, like the major oil companies overlooking what was clearly going on. You can make your own determination about their motivations, though they seem rather obvious. And, in the end, the realization that Scorsese has made yet another gangster movie creeps in. But unlike Goodfellas, the ultimate victims didn’t bring their misfortune upon themselves. Rather, their initial good fortune brought the wolves to their doors.