Few people in human history have loved cinema as much as Martin Scorsese does. This is evident not only through his dedication and many contributions to the development of the artform – spawning his very public lament about the state of blockbuster filmmaking in the era of superhero movies – but also through his unparalleled work as a film preservationist. Being a founding member of The Film Foundation, Scorsese has been instrumental in restoring and saving hundreds of films from all over the world for future generations to witness. Undoubtedly part of this mission comes from the director’s love of cinema as an art, but further motivation must come from Scorsese’s belief in film as historical documentation. While most recognized, and in many ways misconstrued, as a mafia or crime director, much of Scorsese’s work seeks to serve as fictionalized accounts of oft-forgotten historical events. While the exact details may be altered, the experiences, the circumstances, the consequences, and most importantly the lessons we should keep with us are portrayed in stark, often brutal detail. Whether it be personal history with films such as Italianamerican and Mean Streets, religious history in Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Silence, film history in Hugo and The Aviator, or some glossed-over chapter in America’s bloody past in Gangs of New York and Goodfellas, Scorsese’s filmography is overloaded with reminders that no matter how our institutions may wish to scrub the past clean, the stains will never come out. Nor should they, when so many of those same stains color our current world.
It’s then fitting, and perhaps slightly self-indulgent, that Scorsese, aware of his own impermanence, preserves the most crushing moment of Killers of the Flower Moon for himself, delivering the final line of a flawed, artificial recreation of the actual events through his own flawed, artificial recreation of actual events. This isn’t the first time Scorsese has stepped out from behind his camera, and it hopefully will not be the last, yet this one minute epilogue feels like his most personal and profound appearance yet, acknowledging the limitations of both himself as a filmmaker and of film itself. It’s a melancholic moment in a film that reminds us of a time when melancholy, like diabetes, was a condition worthy of deeming someone incompetent. And this is the least of the atrocities Killers of the Flower Moon demands that we never forget. The bodies may be buried, but their stories should never be erased.
Long before this final scene, and at three and a half hours I do mean long before, Scorsese acknowledges his own limitations by opening the film with a symbolic burial ceremony where Osage elders eulogize the loss of their culture. Already pushed off their land several times before, the Osage find themselves unable to escape the influence of white settlers and thus resign themselves to the fact their children will be educated in white schools, speak a white language, worship a white god, and, in time, have their story told by a white filmmaker. The opening allows both the audience and Scorsese a chance to reflect on this fact, recognizing that the story we are about to see, however well intentioned, is rooted in a different culture than that which experienced it. Following a short transition, we then see a slow motion shot of Osage men dancing in a rain of bursting oil, as if the director is using his characteristic stylish trickery to mark the point where his sensibility takes control of the narrative. Curiously, this brief use of artifice marks the only such visual gimmick in the entire film. In the scenes that follow we see Osage life change as the influx of money and people eager for a piece (if not all) of that money forever alter the Nation.
There is no doubt that Scorsese is well aware of the portrayal of Native people throughout film history. As if to counter that, Killers of the Flower Moon spends much of its opening act switching the stereotypical roles, with the Osage being stoic and mannered while the white people yell and fight and race through the streets like savages. The dignity which Killers offers its Native characters is typified by Lily Gladstone’s Mollie, a woman so careful with her words that her silence comes off as anything but empty. Unfortunately, the cruelty on display is also most often forced upon Mollie, as her “incompetency” requires that she ask the bank to allow her to spend money she never asked for in order to afford medical treatment she never sought, all because of a system she never wanted to be included in. While not as showy as Leonardo DiCaprio or as casual as Robert DeNiro, both of whom portray their characters with the same brilliance we expect from them, Gladstone is in complete control of her on-screen presence, subtly shifting from distant to comfortable, and more grandly from screaming grief to numbed, lingering pain. Gladstone’s performance drives home the idea of a people accustomed to suffering. The Osage people of Killers of the Flower Moon have already lost so much that it seems winning is impossible. Their struggle isn’t helped by the fact that DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart and DeNiro’s William Hale spend the entire film scheming to again steal everything from them.
While on the surface Killers of the Flower Moon seems like a departure from Scorsese’s oeuvre, at its core, this is a story about ambitious criminals and the institutions which allow those criminals to succeed. Like The Departed‘s Frank Costello and Wolf of Wall Street‘s Jordan Belford before him, Hale uses the indifferences of America’s justice system to his advantage. Everything in Osage County, from price-gouging photographers and funeral homes to corrupt doctors to bankers in Klansman hoods, is designed to deprive the Native people of their money or their lives, and all of it, from grave robbery to kidnapping to murder, is ignored by the law, a problem which still exists today (as portrayed in the equally excellent Wind River, starring two Avengers). In this sense, Killers of the Flower Moon, like so much of Scorsese’s previous work, uses the past to explain how and why the present exists as it does. He again uses film to chronicle our hidden past, to make it impossible for those in power to make us forget. The past wasn’t some glorious time to which we should all strive to return. It was a flawed, ignorant time from which we should learn to make each new day better. Killers of the Flower Moon proves that Scorsese’s films aren’t about criminals, but about the society which creates and accepts those criminals. The society which allows their stories to be remembered, even glorified, while their victims are left buried. If there is one point of criticism for the filmmaker it’s that Killers focuses our perspective on the criminals and not on the victims, but it may take an Osage director to tell that story.
Like much of Scorsese’s work, Killers of the Flower Moon is a not an easy film to watch. While not as violent or experimental as others, the slow pace and lengthy scenes make us feel the film’s excessive length, which then causes its string of death to seem endless. Also like much of Scorsese’s work, there isn’t a second which passes where we feel as though the director has lost control of his creation. After fifty years in the chair, Scorsese has an absolute mastery of cinematic form. Even scenes which appear pointless – like Burkhart going to talk to Hale only to be told not to talk right now – are necessary and memorable sections of a larger tapestry. If anything, the film is let down by its marketing. It isn’t a mystery, especially to anyone already aware of history, nor does it include a ramp-up in intensity or an explosive climax. Instead the measured pacing focuses us to linger in this period-perfect recreation of 1920’s Oklahoma, making us connect with these characters, live with them, and feel their fear when money and murder become synonymous.
Yet, ugly as they may be, films like Killer of the Flower Moon are important if only so that the ugliness not be forgotten. In a time when state school boards are trying to rewrite textbooks to remove all traces of racism from American history, it falls to other sources to preserve the past. This is especially true with film, likely the most observed and influential of the arts (and with literature giving the real story from which film draws its own inspiration), and legendary filmmakers like Scorsese making these stories impossible to ignore. Thus when the Florida School Board wants to act as though racism never existed, Killers of the Flower Moon counters that not only was slavery a real thing, but the atrocities didn’t stop with emancipation, nor were they limited to one group of people. And thanks to preservationists, films like this and others from all around the world will be there for future generations. Not for guilt. Not for blame. Not for hatred, but to remind us of the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Killers of the Flower Moon shows us why it’s important that we acknowledge our history – in all its brutality, cruelty, and injustice – and why we as a society must work to make sure such events never happen again.
The Osage County Murders are part of our history. Flawed and artificial though it may be, Killers of the Flower Moon enters these events into the cinematic canon of one of America’s greatest filmmakers, thus assuring that these atrocities can never be erased.