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  • Writer's pictureSam Malone

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Mundanity of Malice

Updated: Jan 30

Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, conspiracy: Hide it in smiles and affability. - “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare

After Martin Scorsese made his breakout film Mean Streets in 1973, Ellen Burstyn, though she was wary of his ability to take on the female character study after his male-dominated mafia picture, personally chose him to direct her in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). While meeting, she asked him what he knew about women and he replied, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” This is the key to understanding why Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest American artists to ever live. He knows that the most important part of making art is people. “It’s the human nature that’s got to be explored,” he says.

When the actors were on strike, Apple had been relying on Scorsese to make the rounds promoting his new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, adapted from David Grann’s engrossing 2017 nonfiction book of the same name, subtitled The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. We were so lucky to hear and read more interviews than usual from the great filmmaker, where the octogenarian's insight on classic films that shaped him as a person and artist was so delightful. All of this is revealed, perhaps more so than any time in his long career, in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Scorsese listened to and collaborated with the Osage to bring not only this tragic story about their people to the screen, but their culture, language and perspective, affording a tribe of Native Americans a sympathy scarcely seen in Hollywood’s history (even the few Hollywood films of the past that were sympathetic to Native Americans usually featured a Native protagonist played by a white actor). Scorsese ensures that the Osage - some of the richest people on earth in 1920s Oklahoma after the discovery of oil on their land - are more than the Reign of Terror that was inflicted upon them by greedy, entitled white men while at the same time resolving to highlight the importance and still unfolding consequences of this dark splotch (among many) in the painting of American history. 

What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. - Joseph Brodsky

The film primarily follows Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his nefarious uncle, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), but the heart of the picture is Molly Kyle/Burkhart, whom Ernest and Hale co-conspire to murder, along with her family, for their headrights. Much has been said about the route Scorsese ultimately took during pre-production, switching from a white-centered police procedural to a more Osage-centered story about white greed and predation. Scorsese was struck by what Ernest and Mollie’s great-great-granddaughter, Margie Burkhart, said to him: “Don’t forget it isn’t as simple as villains and victims. You have to remember Mollie and Ernest were in love.” And while it can certainly be argued their love story is not love (and I agree), this is important to know as the jumping off point for Scorsese. Perhaps Ernest really did love Mollie and vice versa, but to debate this is futile. What matters is that Ernest is initiating and feigning acts of love for Mollie (really feeling love or convincing himself he is in love) while simultaneously committing heinous acts against her and her family. And the fact that Ernest is capable of this contradiction, who is dumb and duller than the corner of a cardboard box, exposes the strings on which the puppet of evil relies. The puppeteer? William K. Hale. That scheming, malicious, ostensibly opaque “King of the Osage Hills.” Ernest’s type are easily swept under his wing. 

I’m reminded of an anecdote from the diary of Virginia Woolf in which she, her Jewish husband Leonard, and their pet marmoset, Mitzi, encountered Nazis during a vacation to Germany in 1935: 

Sitting in the sun outside the German Customs. A car with the swastika on the back window has just passed through the barrier into Germany. L. is in the Customs. I am nibbling at Aaron’s Rod. Ought I to go in and see what is happening? A fine dry windy morning. The Dutch Customs took 10 seconds. This has taken 10 minutes already. The windows are barred… We become obsequious — delighted that is when the officer smiles at Mitzi — the first stoop in our back.

The Nazi’s infatuation with the cute marmoset distracted them from truly scrutinizing the couple. Woolf's use of the term “nibbling” while reading D.W. Lawrence’s novel underscores her nervousness with the situation. The Nazis let them into the country with no drama, thanks to Mitzi. Later, however, they would encounter more Nazis and their frenzied Hitler salutes driving through a street with the top of the car down. Again, these Germans would be enamored by Mitzi, petting her and laughing when asking what her name was. Hardly even a passing glance at Leonard. Virginia Woolf would later write to a friend, “Did I tell you how the marmoset saved us from Hitler?”

It’s significant that she says “saved us from Hitler.” Not that those Nazis they encountered (and Mitzi adorably interacted with), aren’t culpable, but they were people not only swept under Hitler’s wing, but pierced by his claws like a stunned fish. It doesn’t matter what they did before Hitler’s rise, and what they were (or did) during the Third Reich was not imbued in them by Hitler, it was already inside of them and allowed to come out during the Führer’s reign. 

Getting back to Ernest and William K. Hale, they fit under this same umbrella of Hannah Arendt’s oft-quoted term “banality of evil.” Hale is the “light” of the Fairfax, Oklahoma community, a rancher and reserve deputy backing the Osage people on the surface while backhanding them underneath it. It’s simply and secretly unfathomable to a man like him that Native Americans should have so much wealth and that’s his only thought as he goes about his treachery. Ernest on the other hand, he’s not much of a thinking fella. It’s go go go without any thought, especially when an authority figure like his Uncle Bill (he calls him “King”) is ushering him to his seat at the devil’s table. That’s the thing, there isn’t much to these people. How unremarkable they are. Yet they’re the sort that deceive, that cause the most destruction and ruin the most lives and sow irrevocable chaos. And still mostly get away with it! 

What’s for certain Ernest does feel love for, however, is money. “I do love money, sir,” he says, his despicable grin rising on his face, exposing his grisly teeth. Scorsese immediately signals his contempt for this man. It might be DiCaprio’s best performance; unglamorous, weak, and dense yet somewhat charming in his indolence. That’s how he endears Mollie, who is well aware he desires a shortcut to get rich. She allows him to take it, trusting his hand in marriage and his heart in family. But his hand is on the poker table and if his heart were gold, he’d rip it out to cash it in. The worst kind of capitalist.

Ernest has just arrived in Osage county, back from the trenches of the Great War. The first conversation between Ernest and Hale (De Niro is magnificent and terrifying as Hale) is immediately off putting. It’s clear Ernest is a buffoon catering to the whims of his uncle and his uncle is definitely not what he seems or says he is. When Hale asks Ernest if he can read, Ernest responds three times with “I can read, sir” as if he’s more reassuring himself than his uncle. Hale advises Ernest to learn the language of the Osage so that he can get closer to them.

The scene ends with a jarring cut - Hale says “the Osage are the most beautiful people on earth” before a cut to an overhead shot of an Osage man lying and dying on the floor, foaming at the mouth. With this edit, Scorsese seems to be both subverting and underlining the sadistic American aphorism: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” The fact that this phrase - uttered in many a Western and accredited to the revered Army officer and Union general Philip Henry Sheridan, though its exact 19th-century origins are unclear - even comes to my mind is awful. However, by showing Hale saying this “beautiful Osage” line and then revealing a dying Osage man plays on the idea of that cruel aphorism. Scorsese seems to be intimating that the brutality of the white man against Native Americans isn’t so explicit in 1920s America. Now it’s more hidden and strategic, cold and calculated. Mind games, not war games. Yet violence will persist. Hale is the new personification of the aphorism. Welcome to the 20th century, now that the Indian is relocated, assimilated and even rich, the white man shall “embrace” him. He even says towards the end of the film, locked up in jail and deluding himself about how the Osage will still remember him fondly: “I brought them into the great 20th century.” How ridiculous he sounds; the paternalism of that line emphasizes his self-delusion, believing himself to be a beloved father figure to the Osage people. Scorsese is never subtle about how pathetic his characters are and we love him for that. After this cut, a montage shows more overhead shots of dead Osage people and how they were killed with voiceover from Mollie listing their names and declaring “no investigation” for each one. One of them is ruled a “suicide” but we see her getting shot by a white man, who then leaves his gun in her dead hand.

Thus, William K. Hale was just a symptom of the bigger tumor that was the U.S. government, believing the aforementioned aphorism by not looking into the epidemic of murdered Osage. The government brought the Osage into the new century by believing they were unable to handle their own monetary gain, passing laws that referred to them as “incompetent” and assigned each Osage person a white guardian to handle their pecuniary interests for them. David Grann’s endlessly insightful and compelling book goes into thorough detail on all of this. Scorsese’s film and the script he co-wrote with Eric Roth leaves most of those details lingering in the background, occasionally surfacing as when Mollie meets with the banker Pitts Beatty (Gene Jones), declaring herself as incompetent. Beatty, too, seems to be always lurking in the frame throughout the movie. In the meeting with Mollie, he’s front and center, but just behind him is the Ku Klux Klan image that also served as one of the promotional posters for D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation (1915), a film still taught in film schools to this day for its supposed invention of film grammar, a claim that can easily be debunked; in another scene during a parade through Fairfax, he can be seen donning his Klan robes and leading the hooded figures; even in the court scenes at the end of the film, he’s a member of the jury. He’s the subtle symbol for white supremacy throughout this conspiracy, the evildoer with the government by his side.

Soon after his arrival, Ernest meets Mollie one day in Fairfax. Working as a cab driver, he offers her a ride. When she accepts, he helps her to the old 1920s automobile (production design and rich period detail by the legendary Jack Fisk, first time working with Scorsese - as an extra on the film, it truly felt like I was walking through 1920s Fairfax, Oklahoma and wearing a costume from that era, I got to go back in time every day on that set). Kelsie Morrison (Louis Cancelmi, a welcoming presence in Scorsese’s late-career films), with his Osage wife, greets Ernest. Suddenly, in a neat addition by Scorsese and Roth, race cars of the era whiz by through the town. Kelsie says, “I got money on this” and runs to watch the race. Ernest, too, briefly leaves Mollie in his vehicle to cheer on the race. It’s a telling scene - almost every person that runs after the cars and cheers them on along with Ernest and Kelsie is a white man (including myself, by far the most fun scene I got to be in, sprinting in multiple takes). After a wide shot of the whole town, Scorsese cuts to a line of Osage people sitting on the sidewalk watching the commotion, disinterested and stationary. Later, when Ernest tells Hale about his connection with Mollie, Hale encourages it by mentioning Mollie’s headrights, dilating Ernest’s money bag pupils.

Killer of the Flower Moon is very much a Scorsese film, gesturing you to lean in from the first frame and then once the opening music starts, you’re officially drawn in. The montage introducing the wealthy Osage in 4:3 newsreel footage (shot on an actual 1917 Bell and Howell camera that Scorsese had on hand) in all its accuracy still pulls you in further. The film is gorgeous too, shot on film (they would yell “Cut! Check the gate!” after every take on set, meaning camera operators or assistants need to check the film stock for any marks, dirt, or hair) with some night scenes shot digitally. There’s a warm hue to the anamorphic lenses, giving the film its vintage color. It’s refreshing for an Apple TV+ film, the streaming service that loves to desaturate color in films and grease them with digital gloss. 

Yet, like all great directors, Scorsese can alter things based on the story he’s telling (the best example of this, to me, is his 1993 Edith Wharton adaptation, Age of Innocence). Fusing his signature touches with the quiet suffering of his 2016 masterwork Silence and the brutal contemplation of The Irishman (2019), Killers at times also reminded me of a Terence Davies picture. Davies’ films worked with the understated method that is the “gathering of images.” Show only what needs to be shown and conceal the rest, don’t force anything so that the story flows seamlessly. One instance of this is a refusal to explain the presence of an elderly white couple at a Burkhart family dinner. Their names are unknown but they’re certainly related somehow. They discuss one of the young children, calling them “half-white and half-savage.” Enough said. Tidbits of necessary information, like even how the gentleness and care for half-Osage grandchildren can only go so far. The couple is not seen again for the rest of the film. Ernest’s other brothers are also in the background of this scene, yet no one interacts with them and they have no dialogue. Like Josh Peck’s Kenneth Bainbridge in Oppenheimer, strictly there for historical accuracy (though Bainbridge said a great line in real life after the atom bomb test that I wish Nolan would’ve used).

This gathering of images officially starts with the transition from the black-and-white newsreel footage to the widening and coloring of the screen as the camera pushes in to introduce Ernest riding the train into Fairfax station (another set I got to be on, a real train that moved back and forth on a small stretch of rail next to the built-from-scratch station building). From this moment on, Ernest is a part of the plot and after the first conversation with his uncle, it all just gradually starts unfolding without really any exact insert point. It helps that we know what they’re doing pretty quickly (putting aside if you’ve read the book or not), there’s no big twist to wait for. It’s all out in the open because that’s how it was in real life. It was all out in the open, the government’s control made it clear what they thought about the Osage and the Osage knew the murdering spree wasn’t some random serial killer. They have meetings discussing the killings (a well-conceived scene of real Osage and non-professional actors improvising), knowing the system is hindering their ability to stop them. That’s the thing about the system, it’s always out in the open. Some people do stop to comment on it but no one, especially those who have some power, actually does anything about it. 

Nobody listened to testimony from Osage people, lawmen ignored their deaths and pleas for investigation, and bankers made sure money got to white hands. When Mollie goes to Washington D.C. to ask for help (this didn’t happen in real life), President Calvin Coolidge gives her the cold shoulder. Even doctors had a role. The Shoun brothers were the crooked doctors of the town, providing “care” for the Osage people and the insulin (poison) for Mollie. When Hale accompanies Henry Roan to an appointment, he jokes with the brothers about Henry, talking about him like they’re raising a cow for slaughter. One of the brothers asks with a smile masking the malice, “You going to kill this Indian?” Hale quips, “How’d you know?” Everyone laughs except Henry, who tries to force an uncomfortable smile. Out in the open. Disturbing stuff in this picture, Scorsese doesn’t hold back. 

So the film is transparent about what’s happening and what’s going to happen right off the bat, immediately honing in on the scheming between Ernest, Hale, and the henchmen they hire to do their dirty work. “They don’t live long,” Hale tells his nephew, while discussing the Osage and their headrights. Mollie’s mother Lizzie and sister Minnie (Jillian Dion) are already sick when we meet them. Minnie is married to Bill Smith (Jason Isbell is a perfectly unsettling weasel, a slimy little fink). When she dies of “wasting illness,” Bill then promptly marries another of Mollie’s sisters, Reta (Janae Collins). Again, all out in the open. But this fact about Bill’s new union is revealed and quickly brushed over later in the film, whilst he’s “assisting” in the investigation of Anna’s death (Cara Jade Myers), another sister of Mollie’s that is spared the slow death by poisoning that Minnie suffered and instead is shot one drunken night while out with Kelsie Morrison and Ernest’s brother, Byron (Scott Shepherd). Then there’s Henry Roan (a devastating William Belleau). An Osage man who was good friends with Hale and whom Mollie was briefly married to when they were youngsters. Hale, being the good “friend” that he was, had somehow convinced Roan to make him the beneficiary to his $25,000 life insurance policy. You can guess where this is going. Sure enough, Ernest seeks out a hitman and blunders on his way a bit, making a separate deal with the outlaw Blackie Thompson (Tommy Schultz of Ada, Oklahoma) that Hale paddles him for (literally, De Niro paddles a bending over DiCaprio in the arse). Eventually, with the help of rodeo cowboy Henry Grammer (country singer Sturgill Simpson) they find John Ramsey (Ty Mitchell), a good old boy hesitant to take on the job until they mention that the target is Osage. “Well, that’s different,” he chirps. 

Ramsey doesn’t pull off his job so smoothly either, forgetting to make the murder of Henry Roan look like a suicide. Hale scolds Ernest for Ramsey’s failure to shoot Henry Roan in the front of the head instead of the back. It’s a typical dark comedic scene from Scorsese, though in this film it’s especially morally compromising. There’s another scene with Kelsie Morrison asking a banker, “So my dead wife has two kids and they have my name. So if I adopted them, proper, and if these two kids were to die, would I inherit their estates? They’re Osage. One of them is half-Osage but they have headrights.” The banker replies after the tiniest of beats, “Kelsie, you realize that this indicates to me that you’re planning on adopting and killing these children?” There’s no doubt it’s a funny scene. Funny in how obvious, open (again), and ludicrous it is. How stupid these guys are. It’s supposed to be funny and make you laugh, as long as the acrid aftertaste of what exactly you’re laughing at hits you when the smile fades. These were real guys, idiots and dunces committing these atrocities. It’s ridiculous, yes, Scorsese seems to be suggesting, but this is what happened. This is how it happened. I was quite struck by Scorsese’s boldness here. And on second viewing, though it was a screening with less people, the quiet response had me thinking more about these scenes. Scorsese seems to be implying not only how ridiculous these men were, but also how absurd the scenes are themselves. Almost as if resorting to black humor as a means to further unveil their evil proves the limits to telling this important story on screen. Because in the end, none of it is funny. And it’s frustrating because while the evil may not be as brazen and open anymore, remnants of the laws that protected these men continue today.

Educators in Oklahoma basically cannot teach Killers of the Flower Moon based on HB 1775, a law that prohibits teaching ideas that says “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” or that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” It’s deliberately vague to scare teachers from assigning books like Killers out of fear they could lose their jobs and teaching license. It’s almost worse than outright banning the book. The Osage murders and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (showing up in newsreels in the film, reflecting off Hale’s glasses, the irony unable to penetrate his eyes to his small mind) weren’t even taught in the first place. I took Oklahoma History freshman year of high school, not even a passing mention of either one.

Students need to know this history and they also need to know that these men were mostly let off the hook as well. Hale was sentenced to life and paroled in 1947; Ernest spent only 11 years in prison before a parole in 1937 and was even pardoned by the governor of Oklahoma in the mid-1960s for the Osage murders; Kelsie Morrison’s conviction was overturned on appeal; Byron Burkhart wasn’t even tried in court as an accomplice and John Ramsey was also paroled. In the very territory where it happened, teachers have to walk on eggshells if they decide to address this history.

I rather agree with Kant (and always have, without knowing that Kant said it) that stupidity is caused not by brain failure, but by a wicked heart. Insensitiveness, opacity, inability to make connections, often accompanied by low “animal” cunning. One cannot help feeling that this mental oblivion is chosen, by the heart or the moral will — an active preference, and that explains why one is so irritated by stupidity, which is not the case when one is dealing with a truly backward individual. - Mary McCarthy*

After Minnie, Anna, and Henry are all murdered, the scheming doesn’t end. There’s still Reta and Bill. When Blackie Thompson rejects an offer to do the job, Henry Grammer suggests to Ernest and Hale one Acie Kirby (Pete Yorn), a man who can make a bomb and plant it under Bill and Reta’s house. One detail I noticed during these conversations was Hale referring to the couple as “Bill and his blanket” while Ernest says “Bill and Reta.” Ernest maintains his politeness, manners, and gentlemanly behavior. His mundanity gets more and more upsetting. Hale demands Ernest to find Acie Kirby while he plans his alibi to be a trip to a Fort Worth rodeo with Henry Grammer. Ernest then pleads with John Ramsey to find Acie Kirby like it’s a nuisance, just following his uncle’s orders and trying to get it over with. They were successful; Bill, Reta, and their white maid Nettie were killed in the blast fueled by five gallons of nitroglycerin. The film does not address a troubling fact in the book: Grann writes that Mollie and her children were supposed to be in her sister’s house the night of the explosion and stayed home due to one of the kids being sick. Therefore, it is speculated that Ernest was planning on murdering his whole family in one night.

Meanwhile, Ernest is both raising a family with Mollie and poisoning her. We know the “insulin” injected in her is making her worse. She even gets suspicious, but not of her husband. She orders him to stop taking the insulin from the Shoun brothers. Still, she gets worse. When she goes to D.C., Hale and the Shoun brothers provide Ernest with more poison to slow her down even more. Lily Gladstone is phenomenal (highly recommend watching her in Kelly Reichardt’s 2016 film Certain Women), a quiet confidence and brightness to her, though charmed by Ernest and truly loving him until it’s impossible to. All the suffering and rage and disgust in her face in the final scene between them is gut-wrenching. When Ernest lies about what was in the shots, she immediately gets up and walks away. It’s agonizing, we feel Mollie’s hurt, pain, and contempt for Ernest. She’s the beating heart of the film, the only good in the story, “wasting away” and hanging on, only to be betrayed and the only surviving member of her true Osage family. 

Earlier, while she herself was “wasting away,” Lizzie saw an owl. She told Mollie that means they are about to die. When Lizzie dies, there’s a tranquil scene at her funeral where she meets her elders in a kind of paradise of the afterlife. The oldest member of the family keeping the cultural traditions of the Osage alive has a true Osage farewell. When Mollie sees an owl, Ernest walks into the room soon after. There are lots of details like this in the film, of white people not only killing the Osage tribe, but trying to erase their culture and beliefs entirely.

“I want to see the man in the big hat,” Mollie, laying in bed and in her indisposed fugue state, tells Ernest. Moments later, Ernest answers a knock on the door to Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons, solid in this minor role, Grann’s book has a whole chapter about White) in a big cowboy hat. With the help of Native agent John Wren (Tatanka Means, an actor whose presence makes me want to seek out anything else he’s in next), the agents finally put an end to the terror. Hale manages to get Acie Kirby and Henry Grammer killed, but it’s not enough to save him. He and Ernest are arrested when Blackie Thompson and John Ramsey implicate them. Ernest, at the behest of his supposed lawyer W.S. Hamilton (I was shocked by Brendan Fraser’s performance at first, it’s based on the true court scenes, but on second viewing I appreciated his aggressive line-reading, how else can he get through Ernest’s thick head?), refuses to testify against his uncle at first. But after the death of one of his children, he changes his mind.

While these men didn’t fully succeed, fortunately, in eradicating the Osage, Scorsese highlights the necessity for continuing to reflect on this tragedy while celebrating the Osage’s endurance outside of it. His case for this is apparent in the inventive, self-aware epilogue to the film. Eschewing conventional “what happened after” or “where did they end up” text, Scorsese depicts a representation based on the Lucky Strike Radio Hour Broadcast of 1933, a staged radio show that dramatized the Osage murders, less out of spreading awareness of the tragedy than a promotion of the FBI thanks to its approval by J. Edgar Hoover. The tragedy and its aftermath are filtered through white foley artists and their narration, rendering silly sound effects and offensively portraying Osage voices. Then Scorsese himself steps up quietly to the microphone and announces the minute details of Mollie’s obituary. Then, the final line, both revealing and typical, uttered with remorse and slight desolation: “There was no mention of the murders.” He looks directly at the camera. Our master American filmmaker stands at the mic and asks us to not only think about the story we’ve watched onscreen, but about both his and our own complicity in that very story and to question the American tendency to be less educated about a people’s and nation’s great tragedy than entertained (or make entertainment thereof).

Then we hear drumming and a cut to an overhead shot, the same type that showed dead or dying Osage people at the beginning of the film. Now there’s life and movement in the shot, the camera tracks back and we see a dancing circle of Osage people, a celebration. Unlike the tragedy that happened to them, the Osage were never buried. They lived on in spite of it. They are not defined by it. While storytelling is limited in its endeavor to fully grasp the anguish and heartache that people suffer, it’s still a tool to buoy history and its truths. With Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese told this harrowing story as best as he could and only as he could while acknowledging the futility of such a task and the shortfalls of his perspective in telling it. That’s the mark of a great artist. An artist that knows these stories need to be told anyway, that history needs to be reassessed, sometimes introspectively, so that we can better understand the past and its present byproducts. Then we can bury hateful aphorisms, not people.

What is gone is treasured because it was what we once were. We gather our past and present into the depths of our being and face tomorrow. We are still Osage. We live and we reach old age for our forefathers. - Louis F. Burns, Osage Historian 

For a much more critical, different, and better perspective on the film, I recommend this piece by Adam Piron over at Mubi Notebook.

*Hannah Arednt disagreed with Kant: "Stupidity is caused by a wicked heart,” a statement which in this form is not true. Inability to think is not stupidity; it can be found in highly intelligent people, and wickedness is hardly its cause, if only because thoughtlessness as well as stupidity are much more frequent phenomena than wickedness. The trouble is precisely that no wicked heart, a relatively rare phenomenon, is necessary to cause great evil. Hence, in Kantian terms, one would need philosophy, the exercise of reason as a faculty of thought, to prevent evil.

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