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Go behind the scenes of Killers of the Flower Moon with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
Featurette: Apple Studios

Killers of the Flower Moon
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Rated R
Conspired 20 October 2023

Somewhere inside Killers of the Flower Moon is a great movie desperate to get out.

Rich Territory

Killers of the Flower Moon movie poster

Killers of the Flower Moon is based on David Grann’s book, which carries a significant tagline: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. Grann is a great non-fiction writer whose chronicles of a quest through the Amazon, The Lost City of Z, was turned into a terrific (and overlooked) movie starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.

Flower Moon was directed by Martin Scorsese; he also co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth, who won an Oscar for his masterful adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump. With that kind of pedigree, expectations naturally run high. Scorsese has said he’d been wanting to make this movie for a long time (the book was first published in 2016) and the early indications were this was a passion project for the gifted director. But that passion – somewhere along the way – devolved into merely an infatuation with two of his go-to stars, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In short, Scorsese misses the mark with this one.

That tagline about the Osage murders and the FBI is critical to appreciating the historical significance of the story. There’s rich cultural terrain to be explored here. There’s forgotten history to be dusted off and revisited. The movie opens with members of Osage Nation lamenting the changing times; their children will learn a new language and new ways – and they will be taught by white people. What brought about this tumultuous shift? To explain it, Scorsese switches the style to a silent movie wherein it’s revealed at one point in history the Osage were the richest people on the entire planet thanks to an abundant oil source under the Oklahoma terrain.

Much more time should’ve been spent on that aspect. The Osage were wealthy, but not greedy and not corrupt. Their relative innocence was easily taken advantage of by outsiders. That should’ve been the focus to set the stage for the tragedy that follows, and Flower Moon starts out promising with its high-level look at the Osage experience and lifestyle. That’s the good stuff.

But Flower Moon too quickly shifts into the less interesting relationships between Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), Bill Hale (DeNiro) and a generic assortment of Oklahoma hicks who are up to no good with their greedy shenanigans in insurance fraud, marriage under false pretenses and murder. Lots of murder.

Ernest marries an Osage, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and they start a family. All the while, Ernest, a self-professed lover of money, falls under the evil sway of his uncle, Bill, who guys by the nickname “King.”

History Repeating

There’s so much history to be mined here. There are the Osage murders, of course, but there’s also the festering racism against Blacks as the KKK openly walks the streets. There’s the introduction of insulin to treat diabetes. Conflict repeatedly ensnares the U.S. with the Philippine-American War, the Moro Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion. Automobiles are becoming commonplace. The nation is growing its dependence on oil. And the Federal Bureau of Investigations starts to take shape.

So much history. So much natural drama and conflict.

And yet Killers of the Flower Moon is painfully dry.

There’s precious little in the way of energy and too few surprises. Too often, Scorsese zags when he should zig. And that’s most apparent in the movie’s final minutes.

The ending goes tonally adrift with a jarring shift to the performance of a radio show drama playing out the story of the Osage murders. That’s concluded with Scorsese providing himself a speaking cameo that puts the story back into historical context and the death of Mollie. She died a victim of diabetes, but she was buried with her family who were all victims of “King” Bill Hale.

The way Scorsese ends Flower Moon is a creative choice he made with intention. Regardless of any historical aspects of how this tragedy has been trivialized and treated through the decades, Scorsese rights no wrongs with this ending. So many tragedies and true-crime sagas have been serialized – whether on radio, TV or even in modern streaming series – that’s a natural component of human interest. But the ending simply doesn’t work. It debases this tragedy Scorsese claims to care so much about.

Give the victims their dignity. Honor their lives. Stick with the story at hand and give it some punch.

But that’s what Flower Moon lacks more than anything. Punch. Surely its impact is nowhere near what Scorsese – the director of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull – intended.

Passion Lost

Flower Moon is a long one. It clocks in at nearly 3 ½ hours, but it should’ve been tightened up and edited to generate more energy. And that energy should come from the people of Osage Nation, the traditions they’re losing and the accommodations they’re making to the “modern” world; the energy is not in the bumbling of Ernest’s early crimes or DeNiro’s unspectacular take on the loving uncle and town hero who’s really a crime lord undermining the entire Osage Nation in the name of his own personal wealth.

Things perk up as the movie crawls into its third hour. That’s when the nascent FBI enters the picture, but the significance is relegated to a single comment from King indicating he’d never heard of J. Edger Hoover. It’s a lost opportunity further fumbled with the notion a federal agency would have no jurisdiction over Native American land.

The lead investigator, Tom White (Jesse Plemons), finally pushes the narrative forward as he starts to untangle all the machinations of King’s extended family. But that uptick in action doesn’t last long. In short order, Flower Moon falls into the standard trappings of courtroom drama. Sure, it helps to have John Lithgow and Brendan Fraser as the legal eagles duking it out with various motions, but it still keeps Flower Moon locked in the world of standard fare instead of the rarified terrain of a master filmmaker telling a story with passion.

• Originally published at

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