“The true story serving as a base for the film compels Martin Scorsese to have the good ones triumph. Yet he immediately counters this with a marvellously inventive coda, both cynical and deeply moving – Scorsese shares so strongly the pain of the dispossessed that he lends them his own voice.”
“A nation of fucking rats,” roared the character of Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed, one of Martin Scorsese’s many crime epics. Killers of the Flower Moon goes back almost a hundred years in time (the film is set right after the end of World War I) to recount a true story that proves to be the perfect exemplification of Costello’s assertion: the Osage Murders, as they were labelled in the title of the nonfiction book by David Grann on which the film is based. Relocated by the United States government in the 19th century, from Kansas to poorer land in Oklahoma, the Osage Native Americans became by a remarkable reversal of fortune one of the wealthiest communities on Earth when oil was found on their properties. The introduction of Killers of the Flower Moon shows how, in Osage County, everything was for a short period of time upside down compared to the standards of American society, with white folks serving as maids and drivers for the Native Americans.
For men such as ‘King’ Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), who shares with Costello (and many other Scorsesean larger-than-life evil characters) the delusion that they are entitled to reign supreme over what they see as their rightful kingdom, such a situation upsets their arrogance and their greed so badly it puts them on a warpath. The thing that would make Hale and his gang rats in Costello’s eyes is their modus operandi. They get rid of the Osage in secret, always keeping their hands clean – poisoned alcohol, medical negligence, hitmen contacted through intermediaries – and posing at the same time as trustworthy allies and patrons of the Native community. Prompted by his uncle, Hale’s nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) agrees to become a part of one of the most common and efficient cons run by the gang: to seduce and marry an Osage woman – in his case, Mollie (Lily Gladstone) – so as to become the rightful heir to her headrights over the oil concessions when she dies. And if death is in the end a certainty for all of us, it was more certain and quicker to occur when you were an Osage Native American living not far from King Hale.
These dozens of deaths, that nobody cares about, set the pace of the movie: a lingering, bitter, bloody funeral march. After The Irishman came to us from the antechamber of death, Killers of the Flower Moon never leaves the land of the dead. Resolutely anticlimactic from start to finish (there is not a single action scene in sight), Martin Scorsese adopts an atypical and very powerful point of view to tell this tragic tale. What we see on screen are the actions of the white men, their plotting and their killing. What we feel, though, is the appalling and overwhelming pain endured by the Osage people, in constant mourning and finding no help whatsoever in their persecution. This duality is achieved by the composed directing, the ominous score, and the striking shifts of power from one protagonist to another along the course of the film. Starting as the core character, Mollie slowly gets sidelined as she becomes the latest target of the gang’s killing spree; and Hale surreptitiously strengthens his grip on power, while at the same time remaining courteous and calm in the same way as Joe Pesci’s character in The Irishman.
We have to wait until the last act to see someone finally show interest in the whole case – BOI (now known as the FBI) detectives coming to investigate – and to see Ernest be at the forefront of the story. Until this point DiCaprio’s character is a more obedient and less smart version of Matt Damon’s double-crosser in The Departed. When the Osage case goes to trial, forcing him to face the judgment of men and of his own conscience, his moral crisis becomes desperate, takes all the space, and is incredible to witness in how it shakes Ernest to the core. In The Irishman, the same thing occurring to Robert De Niro’s character happened too late to have any impact on the world. Here, the true story serving as a base for the film compels Martin Scorsese to have the good ones triumph. Yet he immediately counters this with a marvellously inventive coda, both cynical (listing all the ways in which the bad guys have continuously won since their one defeat in court) and deeply moving – Scorsese shares so strongly the pain of the dispossessed that he lends them his own voice. Here, as in the rest of the film, the director finds the perfect balance between two feelings that seem impossible to reconcile.