Killers of the Flower Moon, 2023

Osage Indians of Oklahoma are being systematically murdered

I got to see this Michael Scorsese film while visiting a lightly populated area of Northwest Arkansas called Osage Valley. This area continues to hold many traces of the departed tribe which used it as a hunting ground (people can dig up stone arrowheads by the bucket full there, I'm told). The audience on a Sunday evening in November filled the theatre and patiently sat through the three-and-one-half hour tale showing the plight of the oil-rich Osage tribe in nearby Oklahoma facing a steady rate of murder among their members.

The film Killers of the Flower Moon is somewhat constructed like a murder-mystery, but because the audience know the culprits from the start, there's no actual mystery, but for the mystery within the cast of characters as (some of them) puzzle over the growing list of Osage tribal victims, becoming fearful, some eventually gathering their families and evacuating in panic.

Mystery aside, the other part of the story is about avarice, the boiling pot of greed that swells up in Oklahoma as fortunes are being made off of oil found on Osage land. An important aspect is the handicapped legal status of Osage Indians trying to control what's happening around them as they accumulate fantastic wealth (as the film announces in a title card at the beginning: the Osage Indians had become the richest people on earth on a per capita basis). Legally forced to use white interlocutors in order to manage their financial affairs, the opportunity to exploit them is multiplied.

Director Scorsese manages the tale in Killers of the Flower Moon and it's very large cast efficiently, and we mostly stay on top of who is who, but the fringe characters that populate both the murderers and the Osage tribe itself can be harder to keep straight as the hours pass.

Scorsese stays focused on the sheer scope of the conspiracy, which develops and grows as the body count ticks upward. The depth of both the stupidity and arrogance of the perpetrators, protected by both racial politics and an implied sense, told mostly visually, that the oil wealth had bred sheer confusion in the area, creating that classic situation where chaos helps hide criminal activity, is offset by the steadily unfolding exploration of the moral character of the main three performers in the movie: Leonardo DiCaprio as a wounded army veteran (who only actually worked in an army kitchen) being taken into the family business of "King" Hale (played by Robert De Niro) who rules over the local area, and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) as an Osage woman who begins to sense the size of the threat around the Osage and battles not only a debilitating case of diabetes but a mushrooming paranoia.

There are courtroom scenes, family drama, and of course episodes of murder, this being both a Scorsese film and the main theme of the film, which is the simplicity of reducing living victims into inert objects.

Based on a novel by David Grann, the dialogue in the film is mostly used for moving us on through the plot or for measuring the self-deluding powers of a few of the main characters (which is immense). Visual craftsmanship for the film is first rate, carefully using historically accurate cars, houses, furnishings, etc., though this may actually hinder the film for a modern audience as what constituted enormous wealth in 1920's Oklahoma doesn't impress us the same in 21st century consumer-goods conscious America.

Storytelling isn't perfect but that's hardly unusual in multi-hour, massively cast epics of this sort. There's a lot of story trying to stay vibrant and fresh as the hours pass and for the most part Scorsese has expertly pulled it off.

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Original Page November 13, 2023