“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
– Henry Hill, “Goodfellas”
“Can you find the wolves in this picture?”
– Ernest Burkhart, “Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” begins with the death of a people, and a certain kind of violent rebirth. Martin Scorsese’s latest epic opens with the ceremonial burial of an Osage pipe, and forces viewers to confront the wails of mourning and fear as the tribe faces assimilation – and inevitably, extinction. Scorsese then cuts to a shot of oil bubbling up from the sunbaked Oklahoma dirt, and Osage tribesmen dancing in ecstasy in the shower of “black gold.” It’s a term we’ll hear several times throughout the almost 4-hour neo-Western – and it’s fitting, because the film’s displays of violence and brutality in pursuit of the resource, extremely valuable to a world just returned from war, rival any committed in service of its glittering counterpart.
“Killers,” based on the bestselling work of nonfiction by journalist David Grann, is set in post-war 1919, in Fairfax, Oklahoma. In the film, it’s a sweaty, bustling, noisy oil town, into which steps Ernest Burkhart, the movie’s primary character, played by Scorsese veteran Leonardo DiCaprio. Under no terms can Burkhart be described as the protagonist, but at the same time, he’s depicted as so intensely stupid and self-serving that he can’t even adeptly perform the role of a traditional antagonist. Instead, DiCaprio scowls and sulks through the 3 hour and 26 minute runtime as a simpering, blubbering, fiercely incompetent blob.
His greed makes him the ideal mark for Robert DeNiro’s William King Hale, a Fairfax cattleman, and a sociopath in Truman glasses. Hale, Burkhart’s uncle, ropes Ernest into his long-running scheme, predominantly involving murdering local Osage to get their oil headrights. Oil has made the tribe rich, but a rash of suspicious deaths at the hands of Hale’s cronies remains uninvestigated, as a montage of dead Osage early in the film informs us.
Alongside his brother Byron (played with dead-eyed malice by Scott Shepherd), a masked Burkhart robs Osage couples for their jewelry, and serves as one of his uncle’s goons, all the while wooing Mollie Kyle, an Osage woman, at Hale’s request. Kyle’s family owns a substantial amount of oil headrights, which is a primary motivator of most of the film’s murders, as her sisters are picked off one by one in an effort to get to her family’s money.
Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie, serves as a counterpart to DiCaprio’s sweaty, bulldoggish persona, offering a quiet dignity to “Killers.” Gladstone’s portrayal of Kyle, Burkhart’s long-suffering wife, is one of the standout roles in the film, and her performance ranks among the best of this year’s crop of movies. Her scream of grief in a pivotal scene is one I’ve heard once before in real life and had hoped never to hear again.
And of course, DeNiro brings both his gangster film pedigree and a subdued kind of menace to “Killers.” Hale lurks under the surface, orchestrating the events of the Osage murders like a skilled puppet master, up until the very end. But even Hale butts up against the borders of a rapidly expanding and interconnecting American West, as exemplified by his screaming fit at an insurance agent refusing to pay out his life insurance claim on a recently murdered Osage employee without the approval of the company’s Denver headquarters. “This isn’t a Denver problem!” DeNiro spits through his teeth. “This is a Fairfax problem!” The crooked king of a sad hill, no matter his local influence, is no match for the inevitable march of 20th century progress.
Other standout roles in Scorsese’s ensemble cast are Jesse Plemons and Tatanka Means, who play federal agents with the newly founded Bureau of Investigations, sent from Washington D.C. after a group of Osage tribal members plead their case before President Calvin Coolidge. Plemons and Means, who show up almost three quarters of the way through, are refreshing in that they’re the first non-corrupt law enforcement the audience sees, in a movie seemingly bereft of any kind of justice. Additionally, Tantoo Cardinal, a Canadian actress who plays Mollie’s mother, has one of the most eerily beautiful death scenes in modern cinema, quietly stepping into the afterlife guided by an Osage warrior. Brendan Fraser and John Lithgow, both masters of their craft, show up in the film’s final moments, as opposing lawyers trying to defend and prosecute Burkhart, respectively.
Louis Cancelmi, another Scorsese collaborator, plays a cartoonishly evil hitman, in one of the movie’s most blackly comic scenes. Cancelmi, in a flashback, questions his lawyer whether the headrights of his adopted Osage children would pass to him if the children were to suffer an unfortunate accident. His lawyer, obviously uncomfortable, responds that it sounds like Cancelmi’s character is attempting to commit infanticide, to which Louis responds, “We’re just talking.”
“Killers,” while deeply serious, is also peppered with the dark comedy for which most of Scorsese’s movies have become known. Burkhart, in one scene, is shown robbing an Osage couple for their jewelry, and then almost immediately losing it at the poker table after screaming “I love money!” jubilantly. Schemes involving dynamite, bank robberies, and car thefts feel almost like live-action Looney Tunes – until Scorsese turns the camera on the consequences. A severed hand, a body in a creek, a bullet in the back of the head – these are the rewards of Burkhart and Hale’s lust for money and power.
But more than anything, “Killers” feels like Scorsese at his most contemplative. The veteran filmmaker is getting into his twilight years, and with that, comes a focus on making longer films that force his audience to reckon with their own mortality – “Silence,” “The Irishman,” “Killers.” The penultimate scene (which I won’t spoil, because it’s a revolutionary way to close out a movie) ends with a cameo from Martin himself looking out into the audience, silently, demanding that we sit with ourselves for a long while, and unpack our own role in the events he has just depicted.
Comparisons and contrasts to this year’s other lengthy character drama with an ensemble cast about a 20th century atrocity – “Oppenheimer” – are inevitable, and for good reason. Christopher Nolan’s camera views the construction of the atomic bomb with a wide, almost sanitized lens, while Scorsese gets in close, showing the dirt and blood under the fingernails of our murderers. Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer takes in the actions in which he is complicit with a staring, distant glare, while DiCaprio’s Burkhart grunts, scowls, and grimaces as he carries out his grisly missions. Both movies are incredible, and needn’t be put up in contest against each other, but the way both Nolan and Scorsese operate is something to consider when watching them narrate and depict historical events.
As a side note, an Alaskan audience might see some uncomfortable familiarities in Scorsese’s depiction of oil-rich Oklahoma. Both states have large populations of Native Americans; both are heavily dependent on the “black gold,” and both (as is the case for this whole country) have treated the indigenous populations incredibly poorly in service of resource extraction.
“Killers” ends with a long overhead shot of a ceremonial Osage dance. Concentric circles of dancers and drummers are revealed to us as the camera zooms out, contrasted to the violence we’ve seen for the last 200 minutes. Despite Hale’s reign of terror, Burkhart’s scheming, and countless other atrocities, the Osage people are still here. And in this way, Scorsese closes out “Killers of the Flower Moon,” not with a mourning cry, but a defiant shout.
Jacob Hersh is a regular Landmine contributor. He is currently attending law school at the University of Idaho.