(Image c/o Addie Roanhorse/Apple/Paramount)
By Andrew Martinez Cabrera
In the non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon, journalist David Grann writes about the time of blossoming flower fields, referred to as the season of the Flower Moon. Starting in May, “taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground.” It is an instance where nature acting as metaphor reflects real life, when members of the Osage Nation, some of the wealthiest people in the world per capita, began to die off mysteriously. These murders became the basis for the latest Martin Scorsese picture, Killers of the Flower Moon.
As any self-proclaimed cinephile would know, a Scorsese-helmed western was bound to happen. One of his favorite films is John Ford’s The Searchers, a classic example of cowboys vs. Indians, a simple reduction of a reductive sub-genre. The Searchers, while regarded as one of the greatest American films of all time, is also one that has a troubling racist legacy, something which Scorsese has grappled with. For Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, the late Robbie Robertson, he explained that Scorsese always said to “look at the filmmaking. In these movies, it’s not the message. It’s literally just a trip.”
While it is quite literally a trip, with a 3-hour-long runtime, Killers places its message in the foreground. Following deeply involved consultation from the Osage Nation and an entire rehaul of the story, moving away from the FBI investigation that is the foundation of the book, Scorsese decides to focus on the relationship between Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the main conspirators to steal the Osage wealth, and his wife Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who is the emotional core of the film. While we do see many different Osage perspectives, the core tragedy of the deaths relates to Gladstone’s character and her response to the greater Reign of Terror. Gladstone is monumental; a performance that shifts from restrained and melancholic before transitioning into total heartbreak. She represents the best of our humanity, the antithesis of Burkhart.
Given the opportunity to tackle a Western with a more empathetic lens towards Indigenous Americans, Killers still enters the narrative through Ernest Burkhart. One of our first images of the Osage sees them dressed as wealthy socialites, looking like frequenters of Gatsby’s parties. Their source of wealth is tied to an abundance of oil found on their reservation. The juxtaposing image that follows is of Burkhart, gross-looking and miserable, looking like the human embodiment of a malnourished dog. Before we know it, his goal is outlined to us before the plot even begins because we have seen the allure of wealth.
It is that allure that has excited storytellers like Scorsese, whose filmography has always dealt with America’s obsession with greed. Naturally, it makes sense for Scorsese to approach Killers through one of these killers, a representation of the worst side of human nature. What once used to be the narrative interest for Scorsese – protagonists such as mobsters, God’s lonely men, and Wall Street criminals – is now a terrifying notion that Scorsese reckons with in Killers.
What is the need to tell this story through his eyes - examining evil as something learned or something inherent? It is something that is absolutely tied to his Catholic upbringing, and now in his twilight years, Scorsese is interrogating his fascination with evil by shifting his paradigm. The energies from his other films like The Wolf of Wall Street, whose themes are more in line with Killers of the Flower Moon, are traded for a more subdued and meditative film, akin to Silence.
Killers of the Flower Moon is incredibly reserved and paced like an adagio musical piece, boiling with an anger unparalleled in his other films. When Scorsese previously depicted violence in his youth, it was an ugly spectacle – flashy, scored to period-era songs; the camera constantly moving, the editing flowing in a hectic motion. Killers’ treatment of violence does not revel in its ugliness, it just shows it. It is as simple as it is powerful. These terrible moments carry so much weight because we have to carry that emotional weight when these static scenes unfold in front of us. What Scorsese illustrates best in Killers is that evil is banal. That is the most terrifying realization one can come into contact with.
Scorsese exposes us to some of the dumbest hicks on the planet who mess up almost every single step of their conspiratorial plot and yet they still succeed. While their plan progresses, so does the entire American project situated in the peripheral. All the while, an entire history continues to set like the moon, disappearing below the horizon line, until it is out of our view.
While depressing, Scorsese still reminds us about the beauty of the Osage people, many of whom worked behind the camera or were towering 30 feet in the air while projected on the silver screen. The Indigenous Americans of Scorsese’s youth, people meant to be antagonists, have their voices and faces be the ones we connect to. However, he understands his limitations as a non-Osage to tell this story, and the only way he knows how is through the victors.
The brutally blunt portrayal of America’s original sin is an honest attempt to honor those whose lives were lost and condemn those who benefitted from those deaths. I am hopeful now that those faces and those stories will continue to blossom for years to come on the silver screen; for when the sun sets, the moon will always come, and shine anew.
Madison Sciba '24,