Of the many films I’ve seen this year, nothing has shaken me the way Killers of the Flower Moon has. Director Martin Scorsese subverts film archetypes and genre conventions to deliver a bleak, indelible story on evil and capitalism rooted in America’s past.
(Spoilers ahead for Killers, which you should watch.)
Most of Killers centers on WWI vet Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), and other white settlers as they scheme against the Osage in 1920s Oklahoma. The Indigenous tribe became wealthy from oil rights. Hale and his crew lie, steal, and murder Osage to secure their wealth.
Most of the screen time is from the white characters’ perspective, which I found occasionally frustrating. With his gullibility and unquestioning criminal mindset, DiCaprio as Burkhart is a less compelling character to watch than the supporting players around him. Lily Gladstone, who plays Ernest’s wife, Mollie, delivers a quietly devastating, pitch-perfect performance but disappears from large stretches of the film. One could point to Scorsese’s long history with gangster crime stories and playing into his comfort zone.
However, Scorsese shows an enormous level of self-awareness around these plot decisions. He’s following the “Scorsese template,” only to purposefully subvert norms and expectations, especially over the film’s final acts.
One could write multiple essays focusing on the editing and cinematography in Killers, where Marty breaks from the propulsive style we closely associate with him from movies like Goodfellas and Raging Bull. But here, we’ll fast forward to the final thirty minutes of this movie. The FBI is now on the case of the Osage murders, and they have ferreted out Hale’s and Ernest’s involvement and arrested both characters. The lead agent (Jesse Plemons) pressures Ernest to turn state’s evidence, confess his crimes, and testify against Hale in exchange for legal protection. Ernest wavers at first, but after he learns that one of his children has died of whooping cough, he decides to testify against his uncle.
At this point, we see a final exchange between Ernest and Hale in jail. Ernest declares his intentions to confess, while Hale (naturally) argues against it, suggesting the FBI won’t hold up their end of the deal. At this point, I wondered if this was the start of Ernest’s redemption story.
Ernest’s late film decision mirrors countless other crime movies where a criminal makes a virtuous action or refuses to go along with the darkest aspects of the job. They get rewarded with a happier ending by staking out morally higher ground compared to other more villainous characters.
Hollywood’s conventional treatment of racism also tends to mix truly vile white racists alongside other upstanding, non-racist (or less racist) white characters. By presenting at least a few more model citizens – in the worst instances, white saviors – audiences can look at racist acts as a limited case of “bad apples” versus a more systemic problem. The FBI entering the picture, combined with Ernest’s turn, hinted this could happen. Hale may be the personification of evil, but the plotting suggested there were some “better people” to stop it.
Also, consider the actor behind Ernest. Leonardo DiCaprio is a movie star, one of the most famous of his generation. He generally plays heroes. Yes, he’s played reprehensible characters, like in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street or as a racist plantation owner in Django Unchained, but these are exceptions in a lengthy filmography. Both movies notably exclude the warmer elements of romance and family we see in Killers.
The plot parallels of Killers to Scorsese’s own GoodFellas are also undeniable. A 70s and 80s mob movie may sound far flung from a historical Western, but GoodFellas’ Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was, like Ernest, a relative outsider who rises in the ranks, builds a family, commits despicable acts, and the law catches up with him. Hill confesses and turns on the mob to save himself. He ends the movie in purgatory (in the middle of nowhere in a witness protection program) but survives and avoids life imprisonment. It’s a far better fate than most other gangsters in the film.
But in Killers, Scorsese has darker plans in mind. The film transitions from Ernest in jail to the ongoing trial. DP Rodrigo Prieto trains his lens squarely on Ernest in a medium shot on the stand. The prosecutor (John Lithgow) recites all the crimes that Ernest and his associates had participated in. Lithgow keeps talking, and we watch Ernest for an eternity. It’s a simple long take that’s sickening in the moment. We’ve sat through over three hours of savagery; having it all laid out packs an emotional punch.
Around this time, we also watch Hale hitman Kelsie Morrison (Louis Cancelmi) testify on how he carried out Osage Anna Brown’s murder, a mystery set up earlier in the film. As Morrison recounts the event with disturbing banality, we watch the killing unfold: Morrison and his accomplice place Anna on a rock and shoot her in the back of the head. Like all murders depicted within Killers, we watch the scene with a plain, unbroken medium wide shot. It’s not gruesome by Scorsese standards, but it’s unflinching and direct in a disturbing way, especially when accompanied by such calm testimony by the killer. Of all the brutality onscreen, this scene was the hardest to watch.
Soon after, we get a final conversation between Ernest and his wife, Mollie. It’s just been a few minutes since we’ve seen a cold-blooded execution and a full recap of Ernest’s crimes in the trial. Yet Ernest is relieved! He’s uncomfortable, but we see hints of that natural charm that DiCaprio can so quickly produce. Mollie sees right through it. Ernest’s betrayal was so extensive that he poisoned Mollie by diluting her insulin shots with morphine. Yet, when pressed on this fact, Ernest repeatedly denies it. Mollie abruptly walks out of the room and out of the picture.
The cumulative emotional weight of watching these back-to-back scenes – a murder flashback, a courtroom confession, the disintegration of Mollie’s and Ernest’s marriage – is huge. Screenwriters Eric Roth and Scorsese have given Ernest no redemption arc. His actions were monstrous, his moral “absolution” through confession inadequate, if not delusional, based on continued lies to his wife.
Scorsese, a cradle Catholic, has often touched on the availability of divine forgiveness in his films. The brilliance of Killers’s ending is how, in exploring this theme over such an epic historical tragedy, he recognizes a tale of uncompromising sin for what it is. With Ernest as a larger stand-in for white complicity, this story has no heroes. Only pain and, as Scorsese has noted in interviews, “sin by omission.” It’s a bleak outlook, as far from a “Hollywood story” as imaginable, and yet Killers of the Flower Moon’s unwavering focus paired with bravura filmmaking gives the movie incredible power.