Original sin

'Killers of the Flower Moon' and the American story

Courtesy: Paramount Pictures / Apple Original Films

Every April, tiny flowers spread like confetti across the blackjack hills of Oklahoma. This is Osage Territory — land carved out and granted to the Osage Nation in the 19th century after they were forced out of Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas. Here they settled on a chunk of northern Oklahoma deemed worthless to the U.S. government. But, in 1870, oil was discovered all over the territory, giving the Osage leasing rights to every drop of black gold pouring from the earth. By 1920, the Osage were the richest population per capita in the world. Then they started dying.

In May, a second crop sprouts along those blackjack hills. These plants are taller and blot out the sun, strangling the water from the soil. The smaller flowers die off as the taller ones thrive, and since this coincides with the glow of a full moon, the Osage refer to this period as the “time of the flower-killing moon.”

It’s a powerful metaphor, one author David Grann seizes in the opening of his 2017 nonfiction history Killers of the Flower Moon, which filmmaker Martin Scorsese brings to the big screen in his cinematic adaptation of the same name.

The moon has not yet peaked when Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the bustling city of Fairfax, Oklahoma, on Osage territory, but it’s on the rise. The Great War is over, and Ernest calls on his wealthy uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro), for work. Hale, whom everyone, including Ernest, calls “King,” has found the only plot of Osage land that doesn’t have oil under it and built a big-daddy cattle ranch.

Hale is about as embedded in a town as one can get. He is friends with the Osage, communicates with them in their language and is gregarious with his wealth and resources. Many Osage love him, but one of the Brown sisters, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), doesn’t trust him. There’s something about Hale she finds off-putting even though she can’t see it. The audience can: His face falls when others turn their backs, his steely eyes always calculating something. His choice of words when he speaks, the paternalism in his voice — even his round wire-framed glasses seem to scream snake in the grass. Then again, when was the last time you saw a movie with a sympathetic cattle baron?

The meaning of monsters

Scorsese has made a career exploring the limits of empathy. His movies are pocked with monsters, often in the leading role. But these films have an underlying humanity, a call to understand what makes the monster. Maybe even a way to coexist with and prevent future monsters from arising. Frankly, it’s backfired a lot on Scorsese, and his movies, particularly the overt masculinity and violence they capture, have entertained more than they have disgusted. A filmmaker can only control what’s inside the frame, not how the audience chooses to see it.

But with Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese and his collaborators conspire to construe and condemn. Killers throws out the honor among thieves, codes of the outlaw or the romantic notion that what transpired across these United States is anything but cruel. And everyone’s in on the take. After one particularly gruesome murder, one reputable resident of Fairfax turns to another and casually says, “You’re pronouncing yourself too much.” Until now, there is no indication that the first man knows who’s behind the murders. But that line says it all. He knows. He’s always known. And so does everyone else.

The rest of the killings are equally brazen and very unsettling. Here is a movie populated by repugnant men too dumb to lie about their motivations. Many murders are discussed in public, and carried out with little concern for discovery. One hit man is told to shoot his victim in the forehead so that it looks like a suicide — never mind that most gunshot suicides are via the side of the head. Not that it matters; he still shoots his victim in the back, execution-style, and takes the gun with him, eradicating any possibility that it might have been anything other than murder. 

Why do these men behave the way they do? Because they are white and their victims are not. In many of Scorsese’s movies, the empathy available to audiences comes from the understanding that the cure to their monstrosity is just out of reach. They are addicts, mentally ill or in too deep to climb out. They resign themselves to their demons. Not here. Here, the monsters show little remorse and even less comprehension that their actions are wrong. Even worse, Killers of the Flower Moon ends with a reminder that it’s not just those who pulled the trigger that don’t comprehend the horror that transpired here, but the rest of America as well. 

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ON SCREEN: Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters Oct. 20. 

Editor’s Note: Boulder Weekly goes Hollywood! BW’s own arts and culture editor, Jezy J. Gray, plays Hale’s secretary in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’