“Do you see?” “Do you understand?” “Look at me like this makes sense!”
Imagine these words spoken in the context of a Martin Scorsese film. Are they delivered by an ageing gangster: his head cocked slightly, his beady eyes narrowed above a rictus grin, first two fingers pressed against his thumb as he wags his upturned right hand at his nervous interlocutor? Capeesh?
You’d be right, in part at least. In Killers of the Flower Moon the last of these lines is spoken by Robert De Niro’s William ‘King’ Hale, an avuncular monster who murdered members of the Osage tribe during what was known as the Reign of Terror – roughly, 1918-31 – when more than 60 Native Americans died in mysterious circumstances. Later it was revealed they had been slaughtered by white men for their money.
After oil was discovered on their land in the late 1910s, the Osage became some of the richest people in the world. Hale was at the arrowhead of a flock of white entrepreneurs who descended on Fairfax, Oklahoma, with a view to exploiting that wealth. These men and women staffed the Native Americans’ vast mansions, sold them shiny new cars, and chauffeured them around, ran banks and medical surgeries: all jobs that seemed legitimate enough on the surface, but were ripe for corruption. As the film opens, Hale is already benefitting financially from his longstanding ‘friendship’ with the Osage community. But like so many of Scorsese’s avaricious antiheroes, he is hungry for more: more wealth, more power. So, he pays hitmen and bribes officials and skims off money from his employer, and eventually manipulates his dopey nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), recently returned from World War I, into marrying an Osage woman who stands to inherit a fortune.
Both De Niro and DiCaprio are working within their comfort zones, as is Scorsese, at least as far as the casting is concerned (De Niro has appeared in ten of Scorsese’s films, DiCaprio in six; astonishingly, this is the first Scorsese feature they’ve both been in). A volatile but charming mobster and a feckless, cocksure up-and-comer, they’re an old-timey take on Frank Sheeran (The Irishman, 2019) and Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013), a Midwestern version of Paulie Cicero and Henry Hill in GoodFellas (1990). When Hale takes his nephew to task over a botched hit, or shepherds him through a crowd while whispering schemes in his ear, the cadences, choreography and camera movements appear as uncanny interpolations of Scorsese’s earlier works.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a western rather than a gangster film – Jack Fisk’s expansive production design calls to mind his work on Badlands (1973) and There Will Be Blood (2007) – but it bears all the Scorsese hallmarks: the rise and fall narrative, the mirrored pair of male leads (DiCaprio was originally due to take the role of FBI good guy Tom White, now played by Jesse Plemons); the gangsters, patsies, informants and agents. There are sinuous, bravura tracking shots and bloody baroque tableaux, dripping with Catholic symbolism. At one point an incarcerated Hale leans into the light and the prison bars cast a crucifix-shaped shadow across his face.
And yet the film marks a significant shift for Scorsese. Until now his state-of-the-American-nation epics have mostly dealt in shades of white: think of the clash between Irish and Italian in The Departed (2006), for example, or Gangs of New York (2002). Charlie in Mean Streets (1973) dismisses a female dancer as “really good-lookin’. But she’s black”, and racial slurs abound in Taxi Driver (1976), GoodFellas and Casino (1995); but deeper consideration of race has been consigned to overseas places such as Tibet (Kundun, 1997) or Japan (Silence, 2016). Here the filmmaker finally excavates the legacy that his immigrant dramas have long kept buried. ‘America’ – that seething pit of greed and ambition – wasn’t born in the streets, but on the desecrated bones of its native inhabitants.
Slowly, from beneath the shiny carapace of authorial familiarity, another film emerges: one that is grave, delicate, wary. It is the story of the Osage themselves, forced to witness their own eradication and powerless to stop it. And at its moral centre is Lily Gladstone’s Mollie Burkhart: a woman torn between the family she was born to and the one she has made. For all the fire-and-brimstone imagery, Scorsese’s peculiarly Catholic sensibility is perhaps most visibly written on these bodies, and Mollie’s in particular (the film’s make-up team deserve an Oscar for the subtlety with which they paint shadows under her eyes and hollows in her cheeks). Forced to suffer inhuman torments, she not only endures, but forgives. It is Mollie who asks that quintessentially Scorsese question of her foolish husband. Can he see what is happening? Does he understand the stakes? In her voice, the words are not a threat, nor an admonition, but a plea. One senses Scorsese is treading gently around Mollie and her fellow Osage, taking pains to avoid an act of cultural ventriloquism (both metaphorically and literally: very little of the Osage-language dialogue is translated). The film’s opening shot is of Osage hands and their voices are the first we hear. An early close-up of a pair of dark eyes – the eyes of an Osage child spying on a mourning ceremony – foregrounds their gaze. Throughout, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker intercut black-and-white stills of the Osage people, dressed in their finery, glaring directly into the lens, while Gladstone’s voice pronounces their names (and, sometimes, the cause of their deaths).
The film suffers from Mollie’s absence in its final third. As it skips between the FBI investigation into Hale and Burkhart’s crimes and the ensuing trial, it becomes overwhelmed by (mostly) white faces and meaty male performances, including John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser in two scenery-chewing turns as battling lawyers. Gladstone gets one last heartbreaking, suspenseful final scene, however, in which she powerfully shuts down any suggestion that ignorance excuses complicity: that is, if we don’t see what’s before us, it’s because we choose not to. Indeed, such wilful blindness is what Hale is counting on: as he breezily assures his nephew, soon enough, “all this” – that is, the massacre of an entire people – will be yesterday’s news.
An extraordinary coda seems at first to bear him out, riffing on Western society’s salacious appetite for true crime and the Hollywood tendency to exploit the suffering of victims for entertainment, from which Scorsese is by no means exempt. But the film’s closing moments throw up a cinematic mea culpa of sorts, as one final, unexpected voice addresses us. And in a closing visual flourish, the camera pulls up, out and away from an image of the Osage, suggesting not so much a God’s-eye view as a final admission that we can only ever see, understand or make sense from a distance.
► Killers of the Flower Moon was screening at the 2023 London Film Festival; it arrives in UK cinemas on 20 October.
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