No film could ever hope to fully convey the scale and gravity of the inhumane violence that white colonial settlers and their descendants have inflicted upon North America’s Indigenous people like the members of the Osage Nation for multiple centuries. But with Apple TV Plus’ much-anticipated historical crime drama Killers of the Flower Moon, director Martin Scorsese sets out to shine a harsh light on that horrific aspect of the US’s all-too-recent history and illustrate how it’s very much part of this country’s living legacy.
Based on journalist David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book by the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon is a disturbing chronicle of how the Indigenous community living in Oklahoma’s Osage County was rocked by a two-decades-long string of brutal murders following the unexpected discovery of oil on their land at the turn of the 20th century. Like other tribes, the Osage are no strangers to loss and being displaced by the American government when we first meet them decades before masses of other people begin flocking to Oklahoma of their own volition.
From the moment that a group of young Osage men first stumble upon one of the countless oil deposits that dot the land they legally own, though, the fate of the entire Osage Nation takes a dramatic turn. The sudden, sustained influx of wealth almost immediately turns the Osage into literally the richest people in the entire country. But along with the Osage’s wealth comes a naked jealousy from white outsiders who see Indigenous people as undeserving simpletons, and Killers of the Flower Moon details how that very kind of thinking culminated in one of the most singularly unconscionable, nefarious murder campaigns in American history.
To this day, it’s still unknown exactly how many Osage people were murdered during the “Reign of Terror” as part of plots hatched by white people to gain ownership of their valuable oil headrights. But Killers of the Flower Moon attempts to honor those lost lives through its focus on Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), one of the many Osage who were encouraged to see white ranger William King Hale (Robert De Niro) as something of a local hero and to refer to him by his middle name as a sign of respect.
In some regards — like the way Killers of the Flower Moon briefly foregrounds a startling, beautiful depiction of the Osage truly thriving in luxury after surviving generations of abuse — the film succeeds in its attempt to show you a small facet of who those murdered Osage were and the greatness that was rightfully theirs. But as its focus turns toward Mollie — a taciturn yet loving Osage woman who feels a deep responsibility to look out for her sisters Minnie (Jillian Dion), Anna (Cara Jade Myers), and Rita (JaNae Collins) and their elderly mother Lizzie Q (Tantoo Cardinal) — the movie’s approach to humanizing its characters becomes far thornier in ways that are both admirable and deeply questionable by design.
Many details of Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth’s screenplay are pulled directly from Grann’s book and work to highlight the larger system of economic disenfranchisement that was forced upon newly moneyed Osage through a corrupt guardianship program. But Scorsese and Roth’s narrativization of the historical record also centers Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) — Hale’s nephew and accomplice — alongside Mollie. And while their stories are undoubtedly interconnected, it’s a choice that ultimately makes Killers of the Flower Moon feel like a film largely crafted with white audiences in mind.
That might come as a surprise to non-Indigenous viewers given how frequently Mollie and everyone around her shift to speaking in Osage, and the movie’s commitment to spelling out exactly how racist, violent, and genuinely malicious the very culture of self-identified “Good White People™” often is. By focusing on Ernest and his willingness to smile in the faces of people he later mutilates, it’s impossible not to see Killers of the Flower Moon as a self-aware exercise in subjecting viewers to the brutalization of non-white people in order to make points about its own subject matter and the act of turning these kinds of stories into “prestige” entertainment.
Killers of the Flower Moon is often a film of subtlety, particularly in the way it shows you how innocuous aspects of everyday life like medicine, food, and alcohol can be weaponized by authority figures under the auspices of minding someone else’s health. But it is also a movie of explicitness — both in terms of the heinous scenes of violence it forces you to look at and the way Scorsese uses the last 15 minutes or so to challenge his audience to reflect on what it is about this story that compelled them to watch.
By doing this, Scorsese all but acknowledges the imperfections of this work and asks us to ask ourselves why, for example, people have been so quick to have fun with memed images from the film or gloss over criticisms of it from actual Osage people. Killers of the Flower Moon is not a perfect film or even one that’s representative of who the Osage were and are outside of their history surviving in spite of being systemically persecuted. But it is very much a moving, devastating, and utterly tremendous piece of cinema that you absolutely owe it to yourself to see.
Killers of the Flower Moon also stars Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Jason Isbell, William Belleau, Scott Shepherd, Everett Waller, Yancey Red Corn, and Tatanka Means. The film is now in theaters and will be streaming on Apple TV Plus soon.