Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) recounts the murders of Osage Tribal members in 1920s Oklahoma. Forced to settle north of Tulsa in the 19th century, the Osage came into money from discovering oil on their land. This sudden and immense wealth concentrated in such few families made them targets for some of the worst men of 20th century America. Like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, this horrific event in American History was mostly “forgotten” by the mainstream in the second half of the century, only to be revived in the 21st.
Renewed interest in both tragedies comes from popular media. The Osage murders came back into consciousness through the 2017 book by David Grann of the same name. The Tulsa Race Massacre and its legacy were depicted in the Watchmen television series (2019), based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore from 1986 to 1987.
Killers of the Flower Moon’s historical reproduction is the best among the already venerated Scorsese tradition. Gangs of New York (2002), The Irishman (2019), Goodfellas (1990), The Aviator (2004), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and Raging Bull (1980) all convey the mood of the times in which their stories are set, but the 1920’s grit of Killers of the Flower Moon works its way into the crooked spaces of Leonardo De Caprio’s Tuscany yellow teeth. The set benefits from designer Jack Fisk, who already won an Academy Award for There Will Be Blood (2007), the asexual prototype for Killers of the Flower Moon.
Fisk’s most recent installment also brings some of the finest textures of American life in the ’20s to a viewer who is now separated from that world by 100 years. The era has entered the continuum of lost epochs as the last who lived through the era are dead. The club of the vanished welcomes all of us one day. We should wonder what, in 100 years, will be remembered of our time on this planet.
My two grandmothers, one Indian but not Osage and one white, grew up in Oklahoma during the period covered by Killers of the Flower Moon. Long before Grann’s book was written, they described the salient elements of this time and place to their grandchildren, who could neither see nor imagine it without stories. Their stories always started with the startling statement that the wealthy were Indians. There were non-Indian chauffeurs who, white or African American, would take pains to learn the Osage language to advance in the local service hierarchy.
Some of my grandmother’s family were farmers renting land and a house. The Osage owner would collect rent through his African-American driver, who acted as translator and money holder. She spoke about the Indian girls who arrived at school wearing white rabbit fur coats to keep them warm, pretty, and distinguished from the poor white children who would have settled for just warmth.
There are better period pieces in cinema, but Killers of the Flower Moon is a narrative-centered work and not simply a refined glimpse into the past. Films like James Ivory’s Remains of the Day (1993) are among the rarest syntheses of period emersion and crafted story-telling whose components have no weaknesses and, thus, when assembled, are rightfully described as masterpieces. Killers of the Flower Moon is dramatic but not great drama. However, holding all art in the light of superlatives is unfair.
The narrative is the weakest part of Killers of the Flower Moon. Many have observed how overly meticulous it is; only the director and editors thought a film lasting over three hours was hitting the sweet spot. But the narrative’s character, not its duration, makes it challenging to watch. It is simply not that interesting. Martin Scorsese’s attempt to have us question North America’s founding biological and cultural synthesis is not that shocking for audiences swamped with stories of exploitation in the media, history, and art. Neither is it generalizable enough to become an accurate model of Indigenous and settler romantic relations. Indeed, Killers of the Flower Moon reinforces inaccurate stereotypes about cross-cultural contact, procreation, and violence – stories for which we strangely thirst.
A sensible response to my criticism would be that it is a true story. Indeed, it is. But when does a true story become a cliché? When it confirms a well-entrenched mental representation of the world—especially at several scales of reality. There are limits to what can be told, given Killers of the Flower Moon’s admirable attempt to be faithful to the original events. When the source material includes multiple parricides (killing of one’s close relatives) and attempted uxoricide (killing of one’s spouse) there is a narrow range of emotional tone and rightfully little chance of redemption. Furthermore, there are no surprises in events or interpretations that might make the audience think deeply about the subject matter. Instead, we feel bad, and feeling bad is a desired emotion for the part of American society that would see such a film as Killers of the Flower Moon.
Let me be more specific about this common cultural sadness, where it exists in the film, and where a fixation on such a negative emotion may derive. If we look at the different units of analysis, we see a simple but fundamental theme of pain. The Greeks had a more sophisticated word – pathos – that was a building block for the complex ways that suffering connects to shared experience. We pull the ideas behind words such as “passion” and “compassion” from this film. Killers of the Flower Moon portrays deep, but not nuanced, pain.
[Spoilers ahead.] The story’s central victim is Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman (ably played by Lily Gladstone) and the prey of the bad people in the film and American history. Like many American Indians, she is a diabetic. At the molecular level, her body cannot tolerate the food of the world that colonized hers. It does violence to her cells. She takes Western medicine, the novel insulin that could save her life. But this technological miracle is ultimately the vehicle for her husband, Ernst (Leonardo DiCaprio), to poison her. Thus, the first level of interpersonal interaction, that of husband and wife, mirrors the toxicity of settler food on Indigenous bodies. That which is supposed to nurture us destroys us.
The broader family interaction between Ernst and Mollie’s relatives is that of white psychopaths and lovely Indigenous people. If we expand the analysis to a societal level, the narrative becomes about ethnic division and exploitation. At the level of gender, Killers of the Flower Moon is a story of male domination and control. At the scale of history, it becomes about colonialism and marginalization.
The physical world and built environment also carry this theme. When treated a certain way, the landscape that provides for plant and animal life becomes a toxic womb. Pipes are laid, then pounded vertically, and out of this impregnated soil bubbles forth life’s poison but industry’s life. Pipes, needles, and penises, when used improperly, are no longer progress, health, and pleasure but knives, bullets, and desolation.
Notice that the universal principle that unites these narrative spheres is power and violence. Power and violence are assumed to be the metaphysical bond holding together reality, and many no longer see it as a singular theme among the many ways the world works. I teach college students who, when asked to analyze a painting of a joyous 18th-century woman on a swing under a tree, run off a list of possible power imbalances such as class and gender. Students rarely produce any exegesis that the painting is about pleasure or the joy of moving through space and spending a day outdoors. If they do, this is instantly relegated to “privilege” and thus power and thus pain.
The facile organization of Killers of the Flower Moon’s narrative becomes clearer when essentialized. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009) developed a technique for understanding stories that broke them down into component parts. One then gets the story’s elements and design. This method is commonly called “Structuralism”. Then, these parts are put into opposing pairs that interact throughout the story. One can often lump things as good and evil in morality tales like Killers of the Flower Moon. Such an analysis can reveal hidden plots and messages in a story…or how dull it is.
If we take this approach to Scorsese’s film, we see it is a recapitulation of contemporary liberal archetypes that are not so interesting. Here are the binary oppositions:
Something does not have to be subtle to be accurate or contain artistic merit. But it often excludes the possibility of nuance or multidimensional interpretation. It also means that we cannot learn much more than we already know by observing it. Ironically, the overly constricted table above is the formula for so many knowledge-creation activities such as the academy and art. The binaries in the table dominate how art and the academy “study” Indigenous people and understand their relationship with settlers. Whether or not it originated from academics or broader culture, this simple paradigm became the formula for suffering, and then this simplistic understanding of suffering became the formula for understanding individuals and societies. This extreme reduction of what it means to be human is also a terrifying rejection of our humanity.
There are two entities that Scorsese has left ambiguous in Killers of the Flower Moon, not by a well-rounded treatment, but by not addressing them. Wealth and the state are left as hazy forces. An initial scene, in which the Osage dance in the spray of oil as it gushes from the earth into the sky and back down on them, can only be understood as foreshadowing doom. The Raindance has been taken over by a false god and gold. There is one brief glimpse of the Oklahoma landscape punctured with oil derricks, referencing how the money is made by industry but not industriousness.
An Osage, in linen so white he eclipses a prairie moon, is shot and rolled into a pond of crude oil in the dead of night. These are intense images. Yet, there is little emphasis on the activities that cause this new wealth. Other than wispy comments by older Osage, concerns about material abundance are under-formulated. Osage and non-Osage give plenty of explicit statements that wealth will bring evil from outside of the community. Idleness’ pernicious effects on culture and family take the role of only a backdrop if even that. Is extreme wealth only bad if it makes others covetous? Perhaps a sense of delayed justice for historical wrongs or a fear of any criticism of marginal peoples makes this subject taboo in the context of Indigenous Americans. Scorsese amplifies this silence.
The state, in this case, the federal government, has literal active agents to progress the narrative to its conclusion. Unlike the prior 70 centuries, from around 5,000 BC to the 1900s, the state, after finding vast wealth near a vulnerable Indigenous population, did not instantly remove or liquidate them. This is a moral and governmental triumph not celebrated enough by our country. The Osage not only kept their land, but the federal government also sent its new bureau of investigation to help stop the murderers and bring them before a reputable justice system.
The head agent, played by Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad (2008-2013), who typically embodies a villain with creepy dead eyes, gives such a passionless performance that I must guess the message. For this film, that is refreshing. Could it be that one can do good without being good? Maybe that is the takeaway? Or something else could be at play. Audiences of a Scorsese film in our current political moment might relate to the sense of righteousness whereby locales (“MAGA Country”), whose void of ethics is backfilled with bigotry, can only be corrected by the federals from Washington.
Although the subject of so many of his films, Scorsese’s opus never really reached the insight into evil and sin that Francis Ford Coppola did in 1972’s The Godfather or Sophocles in Oedipus Rex (~420BC). Unlike Scorsese, Coppola and Sophocles understand that evil can be generated within the family and that such evil is not necessarily carried out by the scrupulous planning of external agents. Instead, it emerges as a companion to everything else birthed by time.
In The Godfather, the Corleone family destroys itself through the deeds it undertakes to protect itself. Oedipus, the unraveller of the Sphinx’s mystery and destroyer of monsters, unravels his own mystery, becomes a monster himself, and destroys his family. In Killers of the Flower Moon, Mollie Burkhart loves and tries to build a family, but in this perfectly human need to be loved, she allows much of her existing family to be destroyed in the process.
This destructive possibility, albeit more likely an emotional rather than biological ruin, is one of the most terrifying things we face when we fall in love. Yet, when this universal risk in life is placed so firmly within a prefabricated structural system of power (Indigenous/Western; Woman/Man) so narrow that it is inaccurate, we stoke anxieties. Anxiety, as a type of false knowledge, blinds us to actual evil and the proper paths forward in our lives.
There are around nine million Americans who identify as American Indian. The vast majority are of mixed heritage. The vast majority of this vast majority was conceived through generations of relationships far removed from what Killers of the Flower Moon depicts as Indigenous-Settler romantic connections. We need to honor that the events in Oklahoma in the 1920s happened and tell this story. We should not, as we are now primed to do, export it as an archetype or use it to reinforce our distorted model of omnipresent power and violence.
Disney’s sweet, and thus now fashionably ridiculed, Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg 1995) is a far more accurate depiction of what has been the balance of 500 years of Indigenous-Settler romantic relationships in North America than Scorsese’s. Sallustius, a 4th-century Roman writer, antedated our modern understanding of mythic wisdom when he gave us the line, “These things never happened, but are always”. We should remind ourselves that the events in Killers of the Flower Moon happened, but they are not always.