October 25, 2023

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: Waning Hope, Aging Masters and the Moment

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This article spoils Killers of the Flower Moon, though it should be noted that the nature of the film renders the spoilers somewhat benign. 

TW: Genocide

I’ve spent the weekend caught between two entirely contradictory thoughts, each reflected in a piece of media from the week before. The first is the conclusion to Arielle Angel’s article on the Hamas attacks and Israel’s genocidal response, articulating in a moment of truly devastating hopelessness a vision of possibility to hold close. There has never been a period in U.S. history of greater solidarity with Palestine, nor of greater Jewish participation in that solidarity. The other is the concluding moments of Martin Scorsese’s new masterpiece Killers of the Flower Moon: Both bitterly satirical and somehow earnest, a vision not just of evil’s inevitability, but of the function of art as a commodity to fetishize it, and all spoken by a man who’s dedicated his life to the rejection of evil and embrace of art. Scorsese’s exclamation point of bleakness comes at the end of perhaps his deepest felt tragedy to date, an indictment absent of nearly any reprieve. 

Killers of the Flower Moon adapts David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name and follows a string of murders perpetrated against members of the oil-wealthy Osage Nation by white capitalists and their manipulated lieutenants. Specifically, it focuses on Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), his relationship with his uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) and his marriage to Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman . The film diverges from the book, which emphasizes the role of the FBI in solving the murders, in order to directly follow the murderers and victims, leaving enforcement as an afterthought. 

Killers opens with a brief scene introducing the stakes, capturing in a single moment the simultaneous forced homogenization and qualified wealth which would propel the Osage towards the central genocide. Scorsese infuses the first act with an inventiveness I had thought impossible of an 80-year-old man, weaving exposition, foreshadowing and tension into a story which he entirely deprives of mystery. The decision to conceal only a few facts of the murders and murderers will certainly be controversial, but to me succeeds in producing a true crime story which tackles the question of how evil perpetuates, rather than who did the evil. Throughout all three-and-a-half-hours, Thelma Schoonmaker’s edit brilliantly sustains the runtime (though it is less showy than Jennifer Lame’s Schoonmaker imitation in Oppenheimer, it is all the more impressive for its methodical sustenance). 

On a technical level, there’s no living filmmaker who makes movies quite like Scorsese, and with a blockbuster budget allowing him to recruit similarly great craftspeople as Jack Fisk (production design), Rodrigo Prieto (cinematography) and the late Robbie Robertson (score), the film’s technical achievement is both unsurprising and remarkable. DiCaprio submits a fascinatingly hammy (if momentarily powerful) performance as a vile, yet earnest, buffoon and De Niro shows off in a larger-than-expected, if fairly uncomplicated role. It’s Gladstone, however, who really impresses, taking on an incredibly difficult (and occasionally thorny) role with astonishing bravitas, centering any scene in which she appears. Side-characters appear with varying degrees of effectiveness (only Brendan Fraser sticks out in a negative way, though perhaps the “boldness” of his performance will clarify itself on further viewings). 

Much has been fairly written about the film’s decision to largely confine Gladstone’s Mollie to a secondary role, focusing instead on Burkhart and even Hale as the perspective on the murders. There’s an undeniable tragedy in the fact that one of the largest-scale films to capture an indigenous story to date ultimately focuses on the white murderers rather than the Osage. For my part, I suppose at once I find myself awed by the story Scorsese chose to tell and the way he did it (true to his unique ticks and interests), while still regretting the failure of popular cinema to center indigenous voices. One may hope and imagine that Scorsese will continue using his significant capital as a producer and industry voice to elevate indigenous filmmakers (perhaps instead of putting his name on Joker 2).
Ultimately, however, it is Scorsese’s perspective, and career long fascination with evil and American sin which makes the film so effective. Through Burkhart and Hale, Scorsese interrogates how individuals sell themselves on genocide, how they sell others and how those others may reconcile human feelings with the inhumanity they’re perpetrating. Burkhart exists as an impossibly frustrating figure: A clarified cypher who seemingly believes himself to be in love with Mollie as he embraces the manipulation that turns him to her attempted murder. As for the arrival of the FBI agents, the investigation serves only as a sickening testament to the brazenness of criminality, the spread of evil’s enablers and a failure not in investigation, but in moral priorities and compass, stretching from within the town to the federal government. It’s an abject message, particularly as we all bear witness to the public and institutional process of enabling genocide, sensing increasingly that even if our institutions are capable of reform, the change comes too little too late. In the end, there is no justice for the Osage, only a documentation unable to escape its role as propaganda for that which it opposes. 

I don’t know how to reconcile my hope and hopelessness, though Scorsese makes a compelling case for the latter. He has both right and reason for cynicism. He is a filmmaker of evil who has experienced a world becoming only more alienating and an old man, fairly certain that he will never see societal transformation. The sole moment of legitimate catharsis in three-and-a-half aching hours comes in a moment of death, immediately followed by a cut back to the devastation of the living. One might imagine that a younger filmmaker or an Osage perspective would have resulted in a film more tethered to life and its potential. At 20, I suppose it’s a matter of acknowledging the bleakness and pushing forward nonetheless. Killers recognizes all true things: As Americans we are all tied both to the original sin of our founding and the contemporary sins being perpetrated every single day within and beyond our borders. There’s no reconciliation in that, but there’s also no place for hopelessness. Instead, we fight because we must for a day where Killers of the Moon is rendered irrelevant, or where the next great documenter of evil is able to see an escape besides death. In the meantime, we can take solace in watching a master at work, knowing not whether their creation is doing good, but being awed by its greatness nonetheless. 

Links where you can donate to aid for the victims of Genocide in Gaza: 

Medical Aid for Palestine

MATW Project



Max Fattal is a junior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected]