Written by Tom Augustine.
At the risk of making an overly glib observation, there’s something resonant about the fact that we are finally receiving Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating epic Killers of the Flower Moon this week. I’m always hesitant to connect a film explicitly to a political ideology or to current events, as it so often serves to glaze over the intricacies of the artwork, painting with too broad a stroke. There’s no way that I can ignore, however, the way Killers seems uniquely suited to speak to the events of the last few weeks. I am of course referring to this past few weeks escalation of conflict in the Israel/Palestine region. But not only that – in Australia, an historic effort to give Indigenous Australians a voice in their own government, only a few decades removed from a time in which they weren’t officially considered people at all, was broadly struck down in a referendum. Here in New Zealand, a right wing government was elected, swept in on a fervent wave of resentment at least partially motivated by repeated attempts to position the solidification of Māori rights as an attack on the Pākehā population. Less than a week since the National godhead, businessman Christopher Luxon, was elected, word began to spread about the possibility of referendum on the centrality of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, our country’s founding document, to our future society. This confluence of events, all happening at once, are united by a defining element – attacks on indigenous people, forces of oppression pushing ever further into the security, freedom and right to their own homes that unites the struggles of indigenous communities the world over, from the Americas to Africa to right here.
Martin Scorsese is a white man, making a film about Native Americans, the people of Osage, a tribe of North America’s indigenous people. That’s tremendously shaky territory to wander into, even for a filmmaker as revered and masterful as Scorsese – particularly as the film centres on a white man, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, who was part of an insidious plot to rob the Osage people of their riches in the 1920s, after oil discovered on their land made them the richest people per capita in the world. The central figure from the Osage nation in the film is Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), Ernest’s wife, who he both professes to love and constantly keeps in a shroud of deception about his involvement in the scores of dead family members piling up around her, including slowly poisoning her, keeping her confined to a sickbed. Christopher Cote, a member of the Osage who served as a language consultant on the film, eloquently laid out the inherent dramatic ‘trouble’ at the centre of Killers at the film’s premiere:
‘As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s not love, that’s just beyond abuse. I think in the end, the question that you can be left with is: How long will you be complacent with racism? How long will you go along with something and not say something, not speak up, how long will you be complacent? I think that’s because this film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage. For those that have been disenfranchised, they can relate, but for other countries that have their acts and their history of oppression, this is an opportunity for them to ask themselves this question of morality.’
Remarkable on every conceivable level, the latest sweeping epic from the greatest living filmmaker is a haunting, intricate masterwork quite unlike anything else in his unparalleled career. There will surely be no better film made this year – to see it in cinemas is a must.
Watching Killers, one realises that Cote’s words are not a criticism so much as an outlining of an objective truth about the telling of this story – it is impossible for a white man to speak from an authentically indigenous perspective, to speak for them. To attempt to do so is a fallacy. It’s this that Killers is investigating directly, an incredibly significant element of this incredible, difficult film. To have a film of this scale and enormity would only be possible at this time in history in the hands of an elder statesman like Scorsese – though indigenous American filmmakers like Sterlin Harjo and Danis Goulet are making waves, at last, in Hollywood, the access to the budget to realise a story like this in the way Scorsese tells it is not yet, lamentably, something that any working indigenous filmmaker is likely to secure.
From the outset, Scorsese and his collaborators have sought to be as authentic and behave as honourably to the Osage as possible – their talent is both before and behind the camera, their advisors an intricate part of the telling of this story from its inception. Where David Grann’s source material of the same name focussed on the FBI investigation into the murders, and on the lead investigator, the rather hilariously named Tom White, Scorsese branches off into new, uncharted territory, focussing on a peculiar relationship about which little is known. In doing so, Scorsese and his collaborators deliberately pivot away from a story that had the potential to celebrate the police first and foremost – particularly as the prosecution of the Osage killers was fundamental to the creation of the FBI that we know today.
Instead, Scorsese is launching into something that he has previously only gestured toward in his films – a full on reckoning with whiteness and the power structures of white supremacy, the stranglehold they have always exerted over America. If that sounds exhausting or unappealing, it’s worth noting that while Killers is an immense outpouring of grief, it is also a genuinely hypnotic feat of pacing. At no point in Killers’ three-and-a-half hour runtime did I feel a sense of drag, the editing by Scorsese’s chief collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker a feat in and of itself, jarring at certain moments, glassy as a morning lake in others. It’s a grand, muscular machine, at once unapologetically epic in size and yet unsettlingly intimate, eschewing moments of blockbuster bombast for chilling silences and claustrophobic interactions between Ernest and Mollie and the film’s terrifying antagonist, Ernest’s uncle William ‘King’ Hale (Robert DeNiro), who orchestrates the killings with a used-car salesman’s smile and handshake. The focus very rarely leaves these three characters, touching only briefly on the FBI investigation, with the wonderful Jesse Plemons ably filling the role of Tom White.
This uneasy alliance between the intimate and the enormous is not necessarily new for Scorsese, who from The Aviator to The Irishman has utilised his later career efforts to craft magnificent films that never lose sight of the humans at their centre. Rarely, though, has he been as critical of himself or the capabilities of his chosen art form. The endless whining about the film’s three-and-a-half hour runtime belies the way the film slowly casts its spell, much in the way Scorsese’s last, lengthy masterpiece The Irishman also worked. Most avid Scorsese watchers know that the final thirty minutes of a Scorsese film are key to their success – the unbearably lonely, bleak final thirty minutes of The Irishman recontextualising everything that has come before. The same is true here, and it is only achieved by the methodical use of time before the film’s denouement, mercilessly laying out both the killings and the stomach-churning fictions Ernest and William weave, not only to themselves but to those around them. In recent interviews, Scorsese has spoken at length about the way mortality has crept into his life – the film is dedicated to the memory of Robbie Robertson, one-time The Band frontman and close friend of Scorsese, who also composed the insistent, needling score for Killers – and the director’s relationship with death has transformed over the years, from a young man’s more cavalier stance to an old man’s wistfulness. Scorsese, raised Catholic, has always ruminated on spirituality, and the gaping hole left by the death of a soul. In the final thirty minutes of Killers, Scorsese paints a picture of an America whose soul died long ago, washed away in the blood of the Osage and other Native American tribes.
In the last ten years or so, Scorsese has delivered masterpiece after masterpiece, all vastly different from each other – from the madness of The Wolf of Wall Street to the tortured mystery of Silence. In all of these cases, the collaborators Scorsese chooses to work with apparently share the sense of their director that time is running out to deliver final remarks on an extraordinary career. Not only Schoonmaker, but legendary production designer Jack Fisk here turns in stunning work, evoking early-20th Century Oklahoma without a trace of romanticism. Robertson’s score, now his final work, is a near constant mosquito buzzing in your ear, unsettlingly consistent in tone no matter how disturbing the imagery on screen. The cast is uniformly turning in some of the finest performances of their career. DiCaprio, who reportedly studied the tortured, uncommonly gentle work of Montgomery Clift to prepare for the role, is positively wretched as Ernest, a gaslighting coward whose love for Mollie is akin to the love one might have for a dog they enjoy kicking. Ernest is the perfect stand-in for the modern, selfish, perpetually put-upon white person, who always feel they are owed something and yet refuse to take responsibility for the actions they take to achieve it. DeNiro is somehow still finding new shades to his capabilities. His Hale is terrifying, having long since convinced himself that he is in fact simply doing what is necessary, a grandfatherly presence curdled and warped.
The film belongs, however, to Lily Gladstone, who turns in work of such quiet power that it is her eyes, her face, that lingers most presently in the mind long after the credits roll. Those who have seen Gladstone in Certain Women will surely know the actress’ long-untapped capabilities, but even they might be surprised at the way Gladstone at once crafts a character of singular and mysterious properties, and also bears the weight of history with every action, every look. It is undoubtedly a performance deserving of the Best Actress prize – though it will likely be overshadowed by showier, less granular work. Scorsese wraps his film around her, a bastion of strength and spirit, while also allowing Gladstone to investigate Mollie as human, not just a figurehead. There’s a delightful cheekiness to Mollie’s early interactions with Ernest, the look of a woman who knows that the man she likes is trouble, but can’t help but be drawn in. Mollie calls Ernest a ‘coyote’, saying ‘coyote wants money’ with a knowingness that can’t overpower her desire to see where this all goes. Ernest is a poisonous, ruinous substance, like alcohol, like money, like all the other things white men brought to the Native Americans to subdue them, and Mollie can’t put aside her morbid curiosity.
This past week or so, my head has felt like a squeezed lemon. There’s been so much grief, fury and, hovering over all, a pervasive feeling of helplessness and impotence in the face of real hatred, even genocide. Scorsese and his team’s grief-stricken film had me sitting in silence all the way through the credits, which are accompanied only by the sound of chirping crickets and distantly howling wolves echoing across the Osage plains. I was thinking of when I was a kid, pumped up on some bullshit I had heard on the playground. I parroted well-worn lies to my grandparents, blabbing that Māori people were lazy, bludgeoning off the government. It’s one of the only times I had ever really seen them angry at me. They’d gone on marches to protest the apartheid in South Africa during the Springbok tour. Their intervention at that moment, their loyalty to the truth of Te Tiriti, and their willingness to reach out to me at a very young age and steer me away from that resentment and wrongheadedness is one of those moments I look back on as one that changed my life. We are now faced with another reckoning about the rights of indigenous people, and about whether we will tolerate the evil of apartheid. If it hasn’t been before, it’s now abundantly clear that if you stand for indigenous people anywhere, you must stand for them everywhere. Killers of the Flower Moon is a film by a white man that explores the complicity that he cannot ignore, and how turning your head from the horrors you perpetrate through inaction comes at the cost of your soul. As Christopher Cote said, it’s a question of morality, one that couldn’t arrive at a more urgent time.
Killers Of The Flower Moon in cinemas now.
Killers Of The Flower Moon
Movie title: Killers Of The Flower Moon (Scorsese, 2023)
Movie description: Remarkable on every conceivable level, the latest sweeping epic from the greatest living filmmaker is a haunting, intricate masterwork quite unlike anything else in his unparalleled career. There will surely be no better film made this year – to see it in cinemas is a must.
Date published: October 19, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese, David Grann
Director(s): Martin Scorsese
Actor(s): Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow
Genre: Crime, Drama, History