Magnificent and frustrating: Lord Wood reviews 'Killers of the Flower Moon'
Ernest and Mollie Burkhart: played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone | Image courtesy of Apple Original Films & Paramount Pictures
The true story of the murder and exploitation of Native Americans following the discovery of oil on their land, this engrossing Scorsese film is let down by its portrayal of the Osage as two-dimensional victims
Like many of us, I grew up on Martin Scorsese’s stories of an American Dream forged in the melting pot of immigration, ambition, capitalism, violence and family loyalties. Killers of the Flower Moon sits in this tradition, but breaks new ground by going to the heart of perhaps the greatest injustice in American history: the exploitation and eradication of Native Americans by white immigrants. It is an engrossing film littered with magnificent moments, excellent acting, gorgeous direction and compelling characters. Yet, for all its wonders, and despite lasting nearly three and a half hours, I left feeling frustrated that a story of such complexity did not receive a richer treatment.
The film is set in Fairfax, Oklahoma, where almost overnight the Osage tribe became the richest nation in the world when oil was discovered in the late 1910s. Their sudden, immense fortune attracted white American migrants, who set about getting their hands on Osage wealth – at first subtly, by providing goods and services, but soon through a more organised campaign of deceit, inter-marriage and targeted murders designed to inherit Osage land titles.
This “reign of terror”, during which over 60 Osages died in unexplained circumstances, was orchestrated by William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro). The film’s central relationship is between Hale and his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who returns from the Great War looking for a fresh start, only to be manipulated by his uncle into marrying an Osage woman to steal her fortune.
I left feeling frustrated that a story of such complexity did not receive a richer treatment
Classic Scorsese tropes abound in Killers: the intertwining of crime and business, complex family codes tipping into betrayal, and a very Catholic tone full of guilt and suffering. De Niro and DiCaprio are familiar Scorsese protagonists. De Niro plays Hale as a relatively mild-mannered psychotic, superficially gentle but relentlessly corrupt and murderous through loyal acolytes.
DiCaprio has the meatier role. Burkhart’s complex transition from ambitious young man to morally compromised protégé of King Hale to a man torn between love of his wife and greed for her inheritance is swathed in internal conflict. It is a part reminiscent of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas but, unlike Hill, Burkhart has no narrative monologue to voice his dilemmas or reasoning. We rely on DiCaprio’s increasingly tortured facial expressions to infer his inner voice, with the result that his head and heart remain slightly opaque to the end.
The most powerful lead role however belongs to Lily Gladstone, a Native American actress who brilliantly underplays the brutalised role of Burkhart’s Osage wife Mollie. Her plight is the moral heart of the film. Mollie, like the Osage tribe, is impoverished, poisoned and destroyed by Hale’s men. But we see little of her or other Osages as fleshed-out characters. The Osages have outrages perpetrated on them, but we discover little about them beyond this. Their suffering is enormous, but they are portrayed as two-dimensional victims.
There is much to relish in Killers. The Osage town is portrayed first as a bright, sunny Western town in the mould of Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven, and gradually morphs into the muddy, moral swamp of a town reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. And a wonderful coda offers a moving tying-up of the narrative strands through the device of a radio drama, showing how in time all American tragedies become American entertainment. But the admirable moral centre of the film is slightly let down by its portrayal of Native Americans as fundamentally helpless. You leave the film moved, outraged and saddened, but with a sense that the film is more a portrait of the complex humanity of the murderers than those who were murdered.
Lord Wood of Anfield is a Labour peer
Killers of the Flower Moon
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Venue: General cinema release
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