Who owns America? The most cynical answer is likely the correct one: the highest bidders, the ones most willing to relinquish from themselves the Christian concept of mercy, or the snake-oil salesmen who founded the archetype of the American entrepreneur. Theoretically, thanks to the Constitution and an on-paper democratic process, each American owns something; after all, without this skin in the game, we might still think of ourselves as serfs, and haven’t we left those old medievalisms behind? That said, one census-designated group does literally own parts of America — the Native American people.
Those familiar with American history may react to that idea with a twinge of cynicism here as well. European settlers have treated the peoples already here with nonstop brutality and double-crossing, and the contemporary American knows and accepts this in the abstract. The collective imaginary formed by high school social studies classes also depicts the tribes as holding monolithic beliefs about the nonexistence of property and land ownership, to be contrasted with the Enlightenment-era Lockeisms and blind Christian fury of the whites. But even the much-maligned ‘40s Hollywood Westerns depict a more nuanced view of the diverse tribes of the Americas, many of whom defended ancestral homelands, and many of whom took those lands for their resources — a history that mirrors that of every other continent. And so, when the whites felt their sinning satisfactory, they gave land back to the tribes that sometimes reflected their ancestral homeland, many times not. Regardless, this parceled land, always without resources, really did belong to the tribes and would, at least theoretically, remain free of American lawmen and taxmen. Most of this land lies in Oklahoma, the dead center of the United States of America, as far as possible from the economic engines of the coasts or any land arable for industry. There was not supposed to be oil here; the tribes were not supposed to think of their newly-appointed land in Lockean terms; but the Osage, a tribe relocated most recently from Kansas, gladly claimed their oil-rich land and spread the wealth to every Osage family. But there is no Eden in America. This is a land for snakes, and the snake oil must flow.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, focuses on the rich Osage Nation and the whites who, though without cavalry or legality, repeat the sins of their ancestors. While American history classes ask us to picture the fate of the Native American as the impersonal defeated bodies of Tiepolo’s The Capture of Carthage, the truth lies closer to the mafioso tactics of raw deals and protection racket shakedowns — well-trod territory for Scorsese. So here is his Western, his mob movie, his neo-noir, his melodrama, and his historical epic that centers the story of America in the center of the nation.
Though the source material (David Grann’s book of the same name) focuses on the creation of federal law enforcement, Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth keep the wider politics to a minimum; instead, they tell the story of the Osage murders through the eyes of the story’s most morally complicated — to put it lightly — character, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his wife, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). Doing so allows Scorsese to let the picture live in the day-to-day lives of the whites and the Osages as the complicated network of Osage killers grows bolder and more callous. It doesn’t take long for the film to reveal that Ernest’s uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), a cattle baron, plays a heavy hand in this conspiracy, recruiting the somewhat dimwitted Ernest in killings that become more and more personal. Meanwhile, the Osage community grows more and more suspicious of the plethora of unexplained suicides and sudden illnesses as well as the shoddy local police and mortuary reports — it’s almost as if the entire city of Fairfax, Oklahoma, was in on a large conspiracy against the wealthy Osage. Their concern culminates in an ever-sicker Mollie traveling to Washington, D.C., to plead with President Coolidge for federal help. Thus, the Bureau of Investigation (what would later become the FBI) floods this small town, threatening to open its most closed-off secrets and forcing a cowardly Ernest to either act on or renege his loyalties to this mob family of the plains.
At the heart of these murders is, of course, money. But the Osage’s money is tied up in a trust by the oil companies, with each Osage family granted an equal portion of the profits. These portions — the legal land rights owned by the families — are called “headrights,” a word maddeningly repeated by the calculating Bill Hale, who knows that the only way a white man can get these headrights is through marriage. What a coincidence, then, that all of the mysterious Osage deaths happen to families that have married white men. This is the devilish nature of Ernest’s relationship with Mollie, as the film plays with the tension of whether or not Ernest’s love can outweigh the cynical guaranteed outcome of their marriage. And indeed, though these characters are the embodiment of an earthly evil, they neither twist their mustaches nor laugh maniacally at their plots. Rather, Hale ingratiates himself to the Osage community: he speaks their language, witnesses their marriages, and attends their funerals. He even offers an additional thousand dollars to whoever can find the culprits of these ever-apparent murders. Bill Hale is no conquistador; he is a snake oil salesman.
But while the film primarily focuses on the slow massacre of the Osage people and the poisonous relationship at its center, Scorsese’s research of the Osage and the Osage Nation’s collaboration on the film allows this narrative several breaks in order to simply observe these people and their way of life. The work of veteran costume designer Jacqueline West and Osage costume designer Julie O’Keefe particularly stand out as the film’s events — home life, political meetings, weddings, and funerals — demand a bevy of resources and historical research to recreate the stylings of the blankets, the extremely specific and almost militaristic regalia of Osage wedding dress, and the clumsy ways the whites might incorporate elements into their own attire. The Osage language, a dying tongue, is spoken frequently by both Osage and the whites, who use it to wear a mask of respect for the tribe (as well as to make sure they can understand every whisper). And the Osage religion — their ancestral respect for the sun, moon, and fire — works its way into nearly every conversation amongst the Osage, placing an emphasis on their dual beliefs in creator spirit Wah’Kon-Tah and the God of the Catholics (rather than a lazy representation of a respect for “nature”). This all does not culminate in the cold collection of facts as an anthropologist’s documentary might; instead, these details create the lived-in world of 1920s Oklahoma that is clearly being slowly eroded throughout the film.
Even though Scorsese’s focus on authenticity and “getting things right” may seem like Killers of the Flower Moon is a realist drama, certain authentic choices may seem strange and surreal. Sometimes, the narrative comes to a complete halt in order to present a vision or a “possible image” in reverse shot: owls, ancestors, and oil-covered demons may not be “there” in a physical sense, but the film does nothing to dissuade the audience from the idea that they’re there in a more real sense. These moments are not surreal; they are real, and Scorsese plays with these characters’ visions in the same way as the heroes of the Iliad talk with their gods in their war. This is a literary tradition that, though mostly forgotten or secularized by the Western literary canon, remains alive in the tales of the Osage.
Though DP Rodrigo Prieto manages to shoot such images with beauty and grace, the movie mostly opts for the brown-grays of the flat Oklahoma landscape alongside the dark blacks that make up the texture of oil at night and the rich orange terrors built into the Osage Father: fire. These moments of serenity act as punctuation for the otherwise drab and brutal brown palettes reminiscent of McCabe and Mrs. Miller or, in its more lyrical moments, Days of Heaven (some of the movie was even filmed in Terence Malick’s childhood hometown of Bartlesville). Those in Oklahoma may wish to see their land as the plains dotted with the eponymous moon flowers or the big sky Technicolor Westerns of yore, but this is a film about fear, paranoia, isolation; it is about the evils of the Osage murders and the bombing of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street; the lens captures sickness, fire, and death. Plagues don’t look good on digital.
Admittedly, though Lily Gladstone gives a performance worthy of the unanimous praise, this isn’t a film about Mollie Burkhart. While she is the only character who’s rewarded with a rich interior monologue (that acts as a moral guide throughout the film), Scorsese focuses, as he always does, on the people who fuck it all up. One may be tempted to see Scorsese’s protagonists as an ever-evolving portrait of American criminality, from the footmen of Mean Streets to the mid-level mob families of Goodfellas to the legitimized crime business of Casino to the fully “respectable” criminal enterprise of The Wolf of Wall Street, with the criminals in each step earning more respect yet stealing more money. With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese has taken his journey’s final step by circling back, telling the story of the snakes and coyotes and wolves that stole a nation and its spirit.
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese; CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemmons; DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures; IN THEATERS: October 20; RUNTIME: 3 hr. 26 min.