Far too often in movies, Indigenous stories are made that use the Indigenous characters as set dressing for a story about white people. It has happened for almost as long as film has been a medium and carries with it a history of settler colonialism, oppression, and genocide. Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of The Flower Moon (KoTFM), reckons with both film history’s exploitation of Indigenous stories and one of the darkest events in twentieth-century America. KoTFM is a three-and-a-half-hour-long odyssey through the Osage County murders of the 1920s. Adapted from a true crime novel of the same name, the film is a masterwork that chronicles a conspiracy by a group of wealthy white landowners to murder members of the Native American Osage Nation for their money and stake in the oil business.
The novel the film is based on is a fantastic book by David Grann that crafts an enthralling, tense, mystery while also being reverent and deeply empathetic to the Osage people. While the book does not reveal who is behind the murders until well into the story, the film opts to spend a large chunk of the film from the murderers’ perspectives. This could end up feeling gratuitous or exploitative but instead, it is handled perfectly. For as much as we follow the monsters behind the killings of over 60 people, we also are put in the perspective of the community that this atrocity affects.
Scorsese himself realized partway through writing the film that he wasn’t telling the story of the Osage so he rewrote almost the entire thing to put their community, their culture, and their story at the forefront. This is mainly explored through Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose family was at the center of the murders. She lost almost her entire familial line and was a living symbol of both the tragedy of what was done in this reign of terror; as well as a testament to the strength and resilience of the Osage. Lily Gladstone portrays Mollie in this film and she gives one of the most rapturous performances I have ever seen. Gladstone is not a flashy actor which is perfect because Mollie was not a flashy person. There are no monologues where she triumphantly displays her acting, this is not a conventional “important performance” that’s going to be talked about because it shows off the issues of our time. No. She is a woman. She is a mother. She goes through tremendous grief and fear and faces what seems like an impossibly bleak future. It all feels achingly human and it is a performance that will demand all of your attention simply because you can’t stop thinking about how real it all is. Gladstone left me in tears and she did so without ever feeling like she was a tokenized minority being made to play the tragic, noble negatively-viewed trope often made to portray Indigenous people. She is honest and incredible and there are really no words that do her performance justice. Mollie Burkhart is the soul of this movie and Gladstone is perfect as that soul.
What is truly overwhelming about this film is not its runtime. What overwhelms me at least is that Gladstone’s performance exists in a veritable forest of career-defining performances. Leonardo DiCaprio is absolutely at peak form in this film. He plays Mollie Burkhart’s white husband Ernest with a magnetism that is awe-inspiring. As the movie goes on you wonder if he can keep getting better and he just keeps doing it. The complexity of his character reaches such a critical mass that you feel as though he has his own gravitational pull in every scene he inhabits. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro reminds everyone that he is, and always will be, one of the most stealthily adaptable actors to ever work in the business. He plays a character that I have never seen him tackle before and he does it with such masterful ease that it’s hard to think that it is even him. The late Robbie Robertson composed a score that perfectly matches the setting and tone of the film and really elevates an already immaculate movie. The very foundations of this story are bolstered on every side. Art direction and costume design emulates the end of the frontier era which gives everything a very authentic feel. The cinematography is positively gorgeous with the landscape of Oklahoma being shot with the same kind of reverence that is often given to places like France or New York.
Martin Scorsese’s last film, The Irishman, was a deconstruction of his old form. It interrogated the world of mobsters and acted almost as Scorsese’s final farewell to a genre that he had iterated on more times than any other genre. With KoTFM, however, it seems that the 80-year-old filmmaker is trying to tell us that just because he’s done with mobsters doesn’t mean he isn’t done with filmmaking. To me Scorsese has never lost his touch, his last decade of work showing that if anything he has been able to continually find new ways to explore the art of film. The man is a true gift to the art form and this movie proves that as long as he is physically able to, Scorsese will just keep getting better.
Go see this movie. It is a masterpiece of storytelling, it is a landmark in Indigenous representation and it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The way the film immerses you in the Osage culture is fascinating. It directly refuses to be exploitative or safe or cliche because to do so would be to disrespect the group of people who are still feeling the effects of this atrocity to this day. So it is genuinely refreshing that the film refuses to sanitize the brutal and horrific actions done against Indigenous people for something as insignificant as greed. Still, one of the greatest strengths of the film is its refusal to make the Osage Nation into helpless victims. They were undoubtedly deeply disadvantaged by an unhelpful government and racist attitudes, and the film rightfully gives them the agency they both deserve and have. Through this lens of true representation, their story is told.