Availability: Only in theaters; because Apple financed the film in conjunction with Paramount Pictures, future streaming will be on AppleTV. The earliest streaming must be at least 45 days from the opening (that is, December 4). Because it opened well at the box office, Apple may postpone the first streaming date. See JustWatch here for availability.
What Was the Matter with Oklahoma?
For those accustomed to understanding the State of Oklahoma through the celebratory play (1931), song (1953, when it became the state’s official song), and Hollywood musical “Oklahoma!” (1955), it can be difficult to fathom that two of the most horrific events of 20th-century American history occurred in the “Sooner” state (the word celebrated the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to [mostly white] settlement), both in the 1920s. The best known is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, in which some 300 Black residents of a thriving community, called the “Black Wall Street,” were killed by white mobs. The other, the Osage Murders, refers to the deaths of an estimated two dozen Osage Indians who died violently or suspiciously (from “indigestion,” or a “wasting” illness), victims all of a plot to acquire the rights—the individual “headrights”—to the oil payments flowing to the Native-American residents of the Osage Nation Reservation, rights that could not be bought or sold, but passed on only through inheritance. That’s the story told in Martin Scorsese’s 3-½ hour epic, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann.
Two of the most horrific events of 20th-century American history occurred in Oklahoma.
In Scorsese’s retelling, the Osage Murders revolve around three characters. William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), the unctuous, manipulative, outwardly charming, self-proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills,” who controls everything and everyone, is the ruthless mastermind behind the murders. Hale is bad to the bone, but through the force of personality, lies, and strategic largesse (a hospital, a dance school), and by distancing himself from the actual violence, he’s managed to put himself above suspicion. Though the tribal elders are depicted as concerned and astute and ready for vengeance (“If we knew who they were, we would kill them. We are warriors!”), they have somehow not been able to see beyond DeNiro’s veneer of beneficence.
Ernest Burkhardt (a superb
Leonardo DiCaprio), right,
falls under the spell of his
Uncle Bill Hale (Robert De Niro).
Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a lovely, serene, thoughtful young Osage with a penetrating, knowing gaze, is one of several sisters who stand in the way of Hale’s scheme. Though married to a white man who can inherit her “headrights,” she, too, remains ignorant of what’s happening. Despite her radiant presence—perfectly captured by Gladstone—she’s essentially a victim. Yet she also is the bridge, with her inchoate suspicions, between Hale and the Osage community.
Mollie, left, a serene Osage, perfectly captured by Lily Gladstone.
If Mollie is a victim, unable to protect herself, and Hale is a monster, committed to doing harm and getting rich, where’s the drama? Scorsese’s answer is both the strength of the film (in that it has a focus) and its weakness. As he and Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth, collaborators on the screenplay, have constructed the story, the film’s tension resides within one character: Ernest Burkhardt (a superb Leonardo DiCaprio), Hale’s just-arrived nephew, who almost simultaneously falls under the spell of his Uncle Bill and falls in love with Mollie and marries her. He comments on the glow of her skin, “What color is that?” “My color,” the reserved Mollie responds. As incredible as it seems, Ernest is both deeply fond of Mollie and complicit in the deaths of her two sisters—and possibly, even the poisoning of Mollie, a dichotomy that‘s vividly presented as he testifies at Hale’s trial. How is that possible? What are we to make of Ernest?
Mollie's sisters have both died, and she is deathly ill. Her husband, Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), is deeply fond of her, but he also is implicated in the sisters' death.
Could he be responsible for poisoning Mollie too?
In a deliciously drawn-out early scene in which Hale and Ernest get to know each other, we learn that Ernest likes money (although he doesn’t seem driven to excess accumulation), likes women (though he seems more than satisfied with Mollie, and with marriage), and appears gullible and naïve. Hale certainly sees him that way, as he grooms the young man for what lies ahead. Ernest has enough respect for Osage ways that he learns their language, but he also sees the Indian way of dealing with disease and medicine as so much hokum. On the face of it, Ernest doesn’t seem stupid, but when he arranges for a local low-life to steal his car so he can collect the insurance money, stupid comes to mind.
Although we see him facilitating the most heinous crimes, Mollie's husband Ernest resists the label of a “bad man,” announcing, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Ernest is played as a nice guy rather than a racist, but he isn’t beyond using racism to convince Blackie to kill Millie’s Osage friend, Henry. Even as he despairs at his wife’s physical decline (that could lead to her death), he continues to administer the doctored “insulin” that he’s been told will “slow her down.” Although we see him facilitating the most heinous crimes, he resists the label of a “bad man” and later, having admitted to the worst, announces “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Those words are straight out of Donald Trump’s mouth, and there’s no doubt that Ernest, in his confusion, could be understood as a stand-in for the Trumpians who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, insisting they were doing Trump’s will (in Ernest’s case, Hale’s).
William Hale (Robert De Niro), standing left, at the opening of a dance studio he funded.
His beneficence to the Osage puts him above suspicion for the murders.
That reading of the film—as an allegory of the Trump phenomenon—has a certain appeal, but it’s not sufficient. Fortunately, the film succeeds in other ways, albeit ones that are less germane to what is essentially a political and social project. It succeeds as a tragic love story, with Ernest and Mollie as Romeo and Juliet. It captures the prudent early years of the FBI, before J. Edgar Hoover turned it into a law-and-order juggernaut. The close and interior settings, cutting against the area’s barren hills and plains, reinforce the narrative’s personal valence. And, despite its length, the film succeeds as entertainment; although traditionally constructed and filmed, it’s consistently engaging—a compelling narrative, presented by a master storyteller. (That said, one wishes Scorsese had left the final bit of narration, accomplished through a radio broadcast, complete with sound effects and a brazen Scorsese cameo, on the cutting room floor. In fact, multiple cameos distract the viewer from the storytelling.)
As an explanation for what happened on that Osage reservation in the decade of Harding and Coolidge and Hoover, “Killers of the Flower Moon” falls short. By investing so much in the character of Ernest and de-centering the Osage to mere victims, it substitutes psychology for history, personal confusion (or weakness, or ambivalence) for what ought to have been at the center of the story: white racism. Imagine, if you will, the same approach being used to explain why Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio), in their early encounters with each other, truly seem to be falling in love.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons
Country: United States
Languages: English and Sioux, the latter subtitled at times
Runtime: 206 minutes
Other awards: 3 nominations to date