The Guardian • Issue #2076

Film Review by Floyd Kermode

Killers of the Flower Moon

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2076
Killers of the Flower Moon

Who’s up for some three hours plus of cinematic awesomeness? Lots of people, that’s who, even the ones who think that Killers of the Flower Moon really should have been a TV series. Martin Scorsese is a legendary director, widely revered since he made  Taxi Driver, and his latest flick comes with big wraps.

Anyone who knows Scorsese’s work will be expecting something dark, and they won’t be disappointed. Killers of the Flower Moon is based on the true story of murder of indigenous people in the early 1900s in the US state of Oklahoma after oil was discovered on Osage Nation tribal lands.

Anyone who’s heard anything about this particular Scorsese movie will know that it’s really long – 206 minutes. No, there isn’t a half-time intermission (this is usually the next question). You will also have heard that it’s all good and that there isn’t a wasted moment.  This is true enough, although a lot of the time is taken up with Leonardo di Caprio playing against type, establishing himself as Ernest, a dim, but troubled character who slowly – tragically slowly – works out what’s really going on.

What’s going on is capitalism at its most rapacious and imperialist. The movie is set during an oil boom on Osage country in the early 1900s. Ernest has returned from the war in Europe and is immediately taken under the wing of his scheming uncle, William ‘King’ Hale, majestically played by Robert di Niro, who tells people to call him ‘King’ with no irony at all. Hale’s plan is to get as much of the Osage wealth as possible via marriage, violence, and murder.

Di Caprio is encouraged to marry an Osage woman for her wealth, as were many white men at the time. This intelligent movie shows the marriage to be a love-match as well as part of the systematic attack on Osage resources, and the romance between Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest.

Based on the book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which describes what Dave Eggers called  “a sickening conspiracy,” gradually uncovered and defeated by the nascent FBI, with Mollie’s courage and strength playing a major role.

With what we know about US history, the broad direction of the movie is hardly surprising, but what makes it memorable and worth watching is the respect for the Osage people that shines through.

Killers of the Flower Moon is categorized as a ‘revisionist western’ on its Wikipedia page, but that description doesn’t do it justice. A lot of the revisionist Westerns have a perfunctory admission that the white guys weren’t the good guys and that crimes were committed against the First Nations people of North America, before centering the white characters with the indigenous ones serving as a  backdrop to white angst, much as supposedly mature US depictions of the war in Vietnam use the Vietnamese people as a scary setting.  We’re still waiting for a Vietnam war movie that isn’t all about how unpleasant the war was for the US and their sidekicks.

In contrast, Killers of the Flower Moon is animated by the lively Osage culture and the strength of the Osage women without being exploitative. The Osage are victims in this movie, but they are not passive or anonymous victims.

Lily Gladstone, as Mollie, the Osage woman Ernest marries, is absolutely vital for the movie, and her relationship with Ernest really makes the film more than just another shocking true story.

As Australians know all too well, capitalism and imperialism aren’t finished with First Nations people yet. The exploitation goes on, and Scorses’s movie finishes with a reminder that the exploitation includes culture as well as oil and land.

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