Unsettling Scorsese’s Killers

Killers of the Flower Moon, dir. Martin Scorsese (2023), written by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese, adapted from the book by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon is set during the interwar years in Oklahoma, when a string of murders of First Nations Osage people were committed. Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, the film’s events are told through the ‘romance’—a term I deploy loosely—between First World War veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Osage woman Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone). Oil has been found on the lands of the tribal reservation and Mollie, along with her Osage kin, have become incredibly wealthy. Inevitably, such wealth attracts all manner of unsavoury characters, but it is Ernest’s uncle William King Hale (Robert De Niro) who is at the centre of the quiet orchestration of greed and violence we will witness. The unseen puppet master, he exploits his local power and influence, encouraging his nephew to marry Mollie and escalating the violence and murders that drive the film’s narrative, all the while maintaining his public image as a friend, ally and benefactor of the Osage, on whose land he lives.

Gladstone, whose performance I have been eagerly anticipating after her brilliant, subtle work in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), is the star here. Her on-screen presence is magnetic, and grounded, to the extent that she almost destabilises DiCaprio’s lead billing and the gravity of his star power. However, as remarkable as the actors’ performances are, they provide the least interesting point from which to respond to the film. Rather, I am interested in engaging with it as a First Nations person, and through this positionality attempting to map some of the unresolved tensions that arise in it.

The film opens in the centre of a lodge gathering where a ceremonial pipe—described by an Elder as a ‘Person Pipe’—is raised. We understand that the ceremony is occurring on lands to which the Osage Nation has been forcibly relocated. The following day the pipe is buried, mournfully. The scene cuts, and crude oil begins to bubble and ooze beneath cracked earth before it fully breaks the surface. In slow motion the reservoir blows out, erupting into the air, and a group of Osage dance joyfully under its dark rain.

This sequence is followed by a newsreel montage. The interspersed text cards reveal that the crude oil discovery has made the Osage Nation the wealthiest people per capita on earth. The silent black and white footage shows the Osage enacting their wealth: a woman shows off her fine jewels and furs to the camera, others play golf and fly aeroplanes. Another couple poses with a brand-new motorcar, and in a pointed upending of power dynamics, a white man is their driver. The montage illustrates a recognisable performance of the conspicuous consumption typically associated with the white, European and, crucially, capitalist performance of wealth.

The collision of these sequences back to back is unsettling. Commentary is swirling, threatening to precipitate, but the film’s intentions remain ambiguous. On the one hand, this might be a subaltern flipping of the structure of coloniality. The Osage have new access to colonial capital which, under the mechanisms of coloniality’s own logics of exclusion, offers a degree of economic power. On the other hand, the film may be seen as glorifying the kind of assimilationist impulses that seek to create stories about colonised subjects in order to maintain uneven structures of power. Such impositions are made to incarcerate us (First Nations bodies) under a colonial gaze and are not just literary or anthropological constructions brought about through benign or naive misunderstanding. The representations of First Nations peoples, cultures and bodies in literary contexts have shaped the collective colonial imagining, and have in turn structured policy and perpetuated narratives of deficit. In Australia the narrative has been the twentieth-century mythopoetic axiom of ‘smoothing the pillow of the dying race’. If Killers of the Flower Moon is considered through the lens of this type of (b)latent assimilationism, the pipe burial scenes take on a very deep sense of foreboding, in which the audience witnesses a people being presented as complicit in their own inevitable extinction.

I found myself experiencing a thread of grief carried from these pivotal opening scenes across the remainder of the film. When I experience visceral reactions to representations of Indigenous lives and cultures, I remind myself of the tenacity of the communities, bloodlines and ancestral lineages that have been kept alive as our inheritance, at great cost. But still I ached for a moment of acknowledgement in the film of what the Osage people had lost in the murder of both their culture and their bodies. Meanwhile, the motivations for DiCaprio’s and De Niro’s characters are established in the opulent but austere sitting-room of the Hale ranch, and amount simply to the acquisition of money. The tenderness of Ernest’s courtship of Mollie will be in stark contrast to the ‘any-means-necessary’ acquisition of her oil fortune, and despite being pulled deeper into the serial murders that take place Ernest remains inconsistent and morally ambivalent.

Mollie, like many of the Osage, and indeed colonised peoples globally, has diabetes. The scenes in which she grows increasingly ill are some of the hardest to watch, as even while she is in a visceral nightmare of fever and delirium she has an intuition that Ernest is adding poison to the insulin she must take. As an Aboriginal woman, watching this was distressing. The sequences are traumatic and explicit, and the prolonged screentime dedicated to scenes of Mollie’s suffering slide into trauma porn. The bodily and psychological harm being done to her is metonymic of the global, historical, and ongoing attempts to exterminate First Nations bodies and cultures. Furthermore, Indigenous women are overrepresented in the statistics of intimate partner violence globally; here domestic and family units become yet another avenue for the permeation of colonial exterminism.

Pathetic, gullible Ernest attends dutifully to Hale’s instructions almost without hesitation, never questioning the harm it may bring. His sustained moral ambiguity culminates in the final scene with Mollie. She has travelled to Washington to lobby the president and is so successful that the FBI (at the time Bureau of Investigation) intervenes, investigating the murders in Osage territory. Following the death of their daughter, Ernest decides to testify against his uncle. He tells Mollie in their final meeting he thinks that after telling ‘all the truth’ his soul will be clean. Yet when Mollie asks whether he knew he was poisoning her, he denies it.

The successful investigation and closure of the case historically consolidated the legitimacy of the FBI as a government agency, with Ernest and Hale sentenced to life imprisonment for their roles in these crimes. But who will investigate beyond a body count to find the range of parties culpable in the destruction of Osage culture and tradition? There is an irony here about the role of policing in resolving the Osage case, which is one of how a global intermeshing of logics continue under the present-day nation state. While policy may no longer declare outright its desire to eradicate Indigenous lives, bodies and cultures, the structures that enable ongoing genocide can be demonstrated in the impunity with which policing of Indigenous people occurs today.

However, despite these subtextual observations remaining unresolved—and I’m not necessarily advocating concrete resolutions—I found Killers of the Flower Moon to have some deeply reflective qualities. In the closing sequence, a radio drama narrates the events the audience has just borne witness to in the film. Scorsese himself makes a cameo appearance, and delivers the final lines of the script. I wonder at this creative decision. Is this a filmmaker casting his gaze back across a body of work, a perspective that can only be accessed in late career, or is Scorsese recognising the extent to which his creative and collaborative artefacts have been confined by the limitations of his subjective positioning? Through the constructed artifice of a radio play, attention is brought to the nature of filmmaking itself, and is making a metatextual remark upon it. Placing himself inside this construction suggests his role in its creation, and an air of lament lingers over these frames. As Scorsese steps in to deliver (verbatim from the historical record) Mollie’s obituary, he also invites the audience to contemplate his legacy and reckon with the biases and blind spots prescribed in his positionality and how it might be implicated in storytelling on the screen.

My own preoccupations with narrative construction inevitably creep in here. First Nations cinema is resurgent globally, and this resurgence foregrounds a politics of sovereign storytelling that recentres lived experience, cultural revitalisation and its representation, and autonomous modes of storytelling. It therefore seems a missed opportunity to have overlooked the possibility of an Osage co-writer for Killers of the Flower Moon. I don’t want to suggest that the absence of one delegitimises the whole project, but rather that the presence of one may have imbued it with the vitality of a perspective able to provide connective tissue in the rendering of land, bodies, culture and testimony. There is an innate intimacy in the transmission of Knowledges, and with input from such an embodied positionality the film could have conveyed more nuance and humanity in its inflections. I suspect that such input may have redressed the deep, existential ache present in the closing moments of the film.

While its epic runtime feels a little unmatched by its pace, the scope and scale of Killers of the Flower Moon builds on the existential reflectiveness present in Scorsese’s previous films Silence (2016) and The Irishman (2019). Morality and mortality weigh heavily in Killers of the Flower Moon, as in its precursors, and it is interesting to constellate them as a late-career triptych of the acclaimed director. Perhaps it is the illustriousness of this long and distinguished career that pushes these existential reckonings into the foreground. The dialectical realities of Scorsese being a distinguished master of his craft and the awareness of the nature of his subjective positioning come sharply into focus as he contemplates the blind spots and limitations of his own perspective and framing.

About the author

Alice Bellette

Alice Bellette is a writer and Palawa descendant. She recently completed a PhD on literary refusals in Aboriginal women’s writing.

More articles by Alice Bellette

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