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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese’s "Killers of the Flower Moon" is as much a companion to Goodfellas as The Departed was – albeit dealing with a type of gangsterism that America has long refused to confront, of an organised effort to steal from and butcher its indigenous people for monetary profit.

In 1894, oil was discovered on land belonging to the Osage Nation. They ensured ownership of the mineral rights, and became the richest people per capita on Earth. Then the wolves came. At the dawn of a new century, and during a period known as the Reign of Terror, dozens of Osage were murdered, their share of the oil rights inherited by the white co-conspirators who had married into their families. "Killers of the Flower Moon" hones in on one such individual, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, who arrived in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and married Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) at the behest of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro).

Scorsese has deemed this film his first Western, but it carries with it his traditional fixations: the rotted core of man’s heart; how power breeds the impulse for destruction; the myths of cowboys and outlaws and the dirty truth to them. Hale, who mistakes power for wisdom, claims fate has determined that the Osage Nation’s time has come to an end. “This wealth will run dry,” he tells Ernest. “They’re a big-hearted people, but sickly.”

When Scorsese began to adapt David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book on the Osage murders, he and screenwriter Eric Roth initially carried over Grann’s central focus: Tom White, the FBI agent tasked by J Edgar Hoover to solve the crime. But that, Scorsese realised, would have made a hero out of someone undeserving.

While Jesse Plemons makes for a stoic White in the film, its focus stays on Mollie and Ernest, who are said to have loved each other in spite of it all – it’s a kind of love that sparks good in Ernest, but fails to protect Mollie.

DiCaprio, with a mouth full of rotted teeth, offers us a man who is loving and weak and ugly deep down in his soul, a man whose cheek twitches when he lies, and whose body deteriorates from guilt faster than any poison.

But it’s Gladstone who provides the film’s centre of gravity. She gives one of the most extraordinary performances by a woman in any of Scorsese’s movies. She is serene but not saintly; a figure of tragedy with a fire in her belly. The first time we dive into Mollie’s perspective, it’s with a force that could suck the breath out of your body. The eyes of the white men and women around her are curdled with disgust. Hers are all-knowing about the future that’s barreling towards her.

In a key scene framed by the burning of farmland, Mollie tells Ernest: “You’re next”. In this quietly apocalyptic retelling of history, white America’s destruction will not end at its own borders – eventually, it will consume itself, too.

When the situation becomes too bad for the federal authorities to ignore, Washington DC sends an officer of its fledgling Bureau of Investigations (later to be the FBI). This is Tom White, played by Jesse Plemons. But Scorsese shows us the politics: the bureau’s belated appearance appears to be, at least partly, a matter of containing the difficult situation involving the white people and the inescapably wealthy Osage peoples, and reinforcing federal control over the new state of Oklahoma.

DiCaprio has played dumb before, but not quite to this plank-thick extent. He blinks, effortful and uncomprehending, and repeats his uncle’s words back to him, as if he’s trying to tease out their meaning.

In the end, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is like a puzzle - each creative piece does its part to form the complete picture. When it’s put together, it’s depressingly easy to see the wolves. The question now is, what do we do when we find them?

"Killers of the Flower Moon” may not be a traditional gangster picture, but it's completely in tune with the stories of corrupt, violent men that Scorsese has explored for a half-century.

And yet there’s also a sense of age in Scorsese’s work here, the feeling that he's using this horrifying true story to interrogate how we got to where we are a hundred years later.

Scorsese presents a remarkable story, with an audacious framing device of a briskly insensitive “true crime” radio show featuring Osage characters crassly played by white actors. This is an utterly absorbing film, a story that Scorsese sees as a secret history of American power, a hidden violence epidemic polluting the water table of humanity.

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