What is the plot of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’?
In the early 1920s, members of the Osage Nation are being murdered or dying mysteriously on their land in Oklahoma, which has made them incredibly wealthy due to the vast deposits of oil underneath their feet. World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to live in the town of Gray Horse with his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), and soon marries a rich Osage Nation woman named Mollie (Lily Gladstone). But Burkhart finds himself drawn into a far-ranging conspiracy that may claim his wife and her entire family.
Who is in the cast of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’?
At first glance, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ seems tailor-made for master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Both a crime thriller and a penetrating look at a seemingly forgotten chapter of early 20th century American history, the film is on the surface a true epic. Clocking in at 206 minutes and immersing the viewer in the world of the Osage Nation and the corrupt, nearly lawless environs of the American South that threatened their existence, the film is bolstered by the sterling work of its cast and crew. But Scorsese makes two errors that prevent ‘Killers’ from joining the upper echelons of his filmography, and at points nearly stop the movie in its tracks.
Story and Direction
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government pushed the Osage Nation out of its native land in Ohio and Mississippi and onto a rough area of Oklahoma known as “Indian territory”. But the joke was on the government, because the land was sitting atop a vast reservoir of oil; by the turn of the 20th century, the Osage were among the wealthiest people in the United States.
All this is laid out succinctly in the opening moments of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” along with the fact that, as the 1920s roll around, members of the Osage are either being outright murdered or passing away from mysterious ailments such as a “wasting disease.” And with the local authorities in the pockets of equally rich white land barons and businessmen who have established themselves in the nearby town of Gray Horse, none of these supremely suspicious deaths are investigated.
Into this toxic situation comes returning WW1 vet Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), ostensibly looking for work but soon – at the suggestion of his uncle, cattle baron William King Hale (De Niro) — courting and marrying Mollie (Gladstone), whose family is among the richest in the Osage Nation. But as Mollie falls ill and other members of both her family and the Nation continue to perish, it becomes clear that this is all a grand conspiracy to seize the Osage Nation’s oil rights and the immense fortunes that come with them – even as its mastermind, Hale, acts as benefactor, friend, and supporter of the Nation.
With nearly all the local law enforcement either in Hale’s pocket or killed themselves, Mollie and several members of the Nation plead for help from President Calvin Coolidge. He dispatches agents of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (later known as the FBI), led by Tom White (Jesse Plemons), to get to the bottom of the killings.
It’s easy to see why this material appealed to Scorsese: it’s both a generational crime saga – albeit not set in the usual Mafia confines he’s known for – and a searing indictment of the underside of American capitalism and institutional racism, as white interlopers use any means necessary to steal from the Osage what rightfully belongs to them, with – at first – hardly any consequences.
From a technical and artistic standpoint, ‘Killers’ is a marvel in every sense. The sets, the costumes, the period details, and the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto all capture the texture of life in a very rough part of the United States some 100 years ago. The portrayal of the Osage Nation seems accurate and respectful, and late musicianRobbie Robertson’s powerful yet subtle score combines a throbbing, relentless modern bass line with Indigenous musical cues.
Yet ‘Killers’ falls short in two major areas: the pacing of the film is languid and curiously lacking in tension, as the plot and villains are telegraphed early on and much of the film is filled with odd editing choices – such as the presentation of a murder onscreen after it’s been described at least twice (including in a courtroom scene just prior), making the actual staging of it seem almost gratuitous. Another truly bizarre addition is Scorsese’s final scene, which wraps up the story in a strange expository sequence that nearly takes us out of the film.
But the movie’s biggest flaw is using Ernest Burkhart – an important but secondary player in the book – as the main character. The central character is clearly Mollie Burkhart, although she is relegated to the background for much of the film’s second half. The other major character in the book is BOI agent Tom White (a subdued Plemons, in the role DiCaprio was originally supposed to play), who arrives two-thirds of the way through the film and is also given short shrift as a character. Yet he and Mollie are essentially the moral compasses of the story, while Burkhart appears to have no inner core whatsoever and just allows himself to be manipulated by the people and events around him. This adds to the lack of energy and urgency that this hefty film so desperately needs.
Leo, Bob, and Lily
It’s kind of astonishing to realize that Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro have not worked together onscreen since 1993’s ‘This Boy’s Life,’ and that the two of them – who have starred in five and nine previous Martin Scorsese pictures, respectively – have never shared the screen under Scorsese’s direction before. So it’s kind of momentous to see them together here.
In the end, however, it’s De Niro who comes across the strongest. His Hale is a masterful portrayal of an unapologetic monster, a man who apparently sees no moral disparity in the way he both seemingly cares for the Osage Nation and ruthlessly plots their slaughter in pursuit of money and power. He remains calm and self-composed, fatherly and yet stern, and professes his love for specific people even as he knows he’s condemning them to death. It’s no secret that Robert De Niro, in the latter stages of his career, has worked in a lot of less than stellar films; but it’s clear that working with his old friend and collaborator brings out the very best in this still vital actor.
As we detail above, DiCaprio is trapped with a character who is positioned as the film’s nominal protagonist (we wouldn’t call him a hero) while also part of the treachery and depravity that drives the film’s narrative. As such, the character seems strangely passive throughout, if not outright stupid at times, his face seems screwed up in a permanent grimace. De Niro’s Hale is clearly defined throughout the movie; DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart is not, and that muddies the good work that Leo is doing. He still delivers in several scenes, especially one between Ernest and Mollie that is one of the few truly heartbreaking moments in a film that should have a lot more of them.
Speaking of which, the third component of the film’s main triumvirate is also its standout. With a modest list of film and TV credits behind her, Lily Gladstone is simply riveting to watch here as Mollie. It’s a shame that the character is waylaid in bed for much of the film’s second half, because Gladstone brings dignity yet humanity to the character – she’s not put on a pedestal as some shining example of an Indigenous person, but is a human being with her own flaws and blind spots. And her grief, rage, and horror as she realizes what is happening to her and her people is palpable and intense.
How Accurate Is The Story?
David Grann’s book is meticulously researched, all the more impressive considering how much of the history of these events remains murky or was outright destroyed as the perpetrators covered their tracks. Scorsese and co-screenwriter Eric Roth may have brought certain aspects of the story forward in a manner that departs from the book, but the major elements of the story remain the same. And it’s the little details that cement the film’s devotion to presenting an accurate portrayal of the Osage Nation and the events of the time.
In fact, some of those details may not be clear to viewers the first time around, especially if one hasn’t read the book. For instance, wealthy Osage members, particularly women, are labeled “incompetents,” deemed incapable of handling their own money. It’s mentioned in the movie often and a perfect example of the level of accuracy and detail that Grann’s book strives for, and which Scorsese, Roth and their team replicate.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is worth seeing for its tremendous performances by Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, and others, as well as its incredible production design, detailed immersion in the world of Gray Horse, Oklahoma and the Osage Nation, and haunting score from Robbie Robertson. But viewers will feel every minute of the film’s three-and-a-half-hour length, and the decision to see most of the story through the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart is a nearly fatal flaw that robs the film of a point of view or moral center.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ receives 6 out of 10 stars.