Log in Subscribe

Film Review: Killers of the Flower Moon


There’s a moment early on in Martin Scorsese’s new film “Killers of the Flower Moon” where Leonardo DiCaprio’s dumb, lazy, and mean Ernest Burkhart is given a book on the Osage people by his uncle, the rich and powerful cattle rancher William King Hale (Robert De Niro).

Newly arrived to the Osage territory after a failed stint in World War I, Ernest is given the book so he may familiarize himself with the nation he is living amongst while also readying himself for the complete horrors he will inflict on their people. Ernest immediately flips to a drawing with the caption “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” In one scene, in one moment, Scorsese tells you exactly what the film is about. The wolves are everywhere, Ernest, and you’re one of them.

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on the non-fiction powerhouse of a novel by David Grann, tells the story of the Osage murders in Oklahoma in the early 1920s when the Osage nation found massive oil deposits beneath their land and became the richest people per capita in the world. Then the white folk came in and figured out ways to not only parasitically live off of that money, but murder the Osage one at a time to steal their inheritance and wealth.

There’s no need to search too hard for the wolves in this picture because they’re all hiding in plain sight. Just shine a light into the darkness and watch them bare their teeth. At over 200 minutes long, Scorsese systematically breaks down what these evil men did and how they did it while stoking such anger in the viewer as to plead with us to never forget the horrific crimes and injustices done to Native Americans by the citizens and government of this country. This is a deeply angry movie, howling at the pacified masses to stop settling for bread and circuses and demand something better from the country we live in.

I’ve seen the movie twice in the theater now because I wanted to understand some of the choices Scorsese made. The first act of the film follows Ernest as he meets, woos, and marries Mollie Kyle (played by the luminous, brilliant, and astonishing Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman he seemingly genuinely loves, but is also, conveniently for him, extremely rich. I won’t delve too deep into spoiler territory, but a titanic amount of the three-plus-hour runtime is dedicated to Ernest slowly and methodically taking everything Mollie loves away from her, leaving the strong and incredible woman with only him to rely upon.

This is the main choice of the movie with which I struggle and I’m not sure how to reconcile it with how truly incredible the filmmaking and performances are. There is no reason that I can really tell why Ernest is the main character of this movie. He’s just jaw-droppingly stupid -- to the point where it’s hard to know what he’s feeling about any of his horrific actions throughout the film. Ernest has no inner life, and as strong as DiCaprio is in the role, he’s just a series of frowns and grunts and whiskey-soaked growls. He inspires so little emotion (be it sympathy, hatred, or some complicated response in between) that in the end, his character is an afterthought, a footnote, in what amounts to his own story.

Mollie is the emotional center of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” not Ernest and not Hale (whose portrayal seems to have gifted De Niro with an alertness we haven’t seen in some time), whose entire motivation is greed, plain and simple without much nuance. So why spend over three hours with them as central characters when Mollie and the Osage people have a truly important story worth telling?

Don’t get me wrong, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a towering achievement from Scorsese, his absolutely brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer (the late, great) Robbie Robertson. But it also feels like a missed opportunity to tell the story of the Osage killings from more of an Osage perspective.

I don’t feel right judging a film by what I wanted it to be instead of what it actually is, so I can’t really say a different version of this movie would have been better or worse. But after two viewings I can say that I truly don’t understand why Ernest is the central focus of the story. The obvious answer is that DiCaprio wanted to play Ernest, but that’s not good enough. The representation, authenticity, and respect shown to the Osage nation seem careful and considered, but the wolves still take center stage.


2 comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.

  • N_Alice_Newlon

    Thank you for this review. You very nicely pointed out that even Hollywood has a way to go before they are inclusive.

    Friday, November 3, 2023 Report this

  • misty

    I thought the film was excellent and your comments are interesting too.

    Friday, November 3, 2023 Report this