Killers of the Flower Moon: as long as it needs to be

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Killers of the Flower Moon: as long as it needs to be

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good stuff · Tuesday 21 Nov 2023
Killers of the Flower Moon documents the emergence of modern America from the foundation myths of the old west. In doing so it places a story of greed, corruption and self deceit at the heart of American history. Its starting point is an unusual one among the more familiar narratives of native American exploitation by white settlers, and those who came after them. It’s the true story of what happened when the Osage nation, forcibly transplanted to an Oklahoma territory, found oil on their land. Since oil was emerging as the driving force (literally) of modern America, for a short while the Osage became rich.

The opening scenes of Scorsese’s epic show them assuming the trappings of wealth. It then focuses on the story of how a cattle baron William Hale (De Niro), who liked to present himself as a friend of the Osage, sought to grab the oil head rights for himself, through marriage and murder, enlisting the help of his naive but easily venal nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio).

Entertaining seriousness
Films based on true stories often end with captions explaining what happened next to the various characters: X was found guilty and sent to prison for Y years, or Z lived out her days in peace, or whatever. Scorsese does something different, ending with a sequence showing the recording of a True Crimes radio broadcast, in which the necessary post-story narrative details are given to you, but now they have their own context, a hammy dramatisation brought to its audience for entertainment and with the endorsement of one J Edgar Hoover (solving the crime, or at least some of the crimes, was an early success for Hoover’s FBI). Eighty years on and given what we now know of Hoover, the mention of his name demands a critical shift in perspective.
Scorsese is acknowledging the context of his own film as entertainment, and that context is inevitable. In its defence the film is rigorous in being engrossing rather than entertaining. Some have felt it’s simply not entertaining, a function of its extended length. There’s more to be said about that.

There’s another, related problem, which has also been frequently raised.

Agency and exploitation
Scorsese talked extensively with people of the Osage nation, and wants his film to be seen as respectful to their story rather than an exploitation or entertaining trivialisation of it. He has spoken of his desire to portray the Osage not simply as victims. But in an obvious sense they were the victims. Scorsese might have chosen to tell the story through their eyes, and focused on how they dealt with what was being done to them. Some Native American voices have said this is exactly what he should have done. He could for instance have weighted the story around the character of Molly (Lily Gladstone), how she grew up, her first marriage, the development of her relationship with Ernest.

Molly is certainly a central character in the film, and arguably her character dramatises the nuanced relationship of the Osage with the whites, knowing its compromises and yet still embracing it, because it brings her other things she wants. Perhaps in showing her to be as strong and thoughtful as she is helpless, Scorsese is acknowledging how the Osage maintained a degree of agency when faced with an everyday powerful evil.

But beyond Molly the Osage are admittedly not the dramatic focus of the film.

The shock of the ordinary
You’re presented with a lot of quiet dialogue, particularly led by De Niro, who’s given to explaining not only what he wants but why he wants it, revealing the stories he’s telling himself in order to think of himself as a benevolent man.

This deliberated way of proceeding is fundamental. Unlike say Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street the film works its power through understatement. It doesn’t shy away from showing violence, but it does so in a muted, distanced way. Human capacity for evil is hardly a new subject for Scorsese but here he seems concerned to show what Hannah Arendt indelibly called the banality of evil. It’s most obvious in the self-deception of the De Niro and DiCaprio characters, which while it may differ in degree asks questions about how much that degree matters.

It’s there too in the blankness of the film’s minor killers. Again casual violence is nothing new in a Scorsese film, but here it’s been stripped of overt dramatic presence. It has a different though undiminished force because of it. The violence is casual, but its effects on the settlement the Osage have been able to make in their displacement are shown to be relentlessly devastating.

History and storytelling
There are two basic ways of dealing with history in a film. The first is documentary, the second is through drama. Drama has the potential to bring a story to life, to make it feel real, but risks the trivialisation of entertainment.

Killers of the Flower Moon does use the familiar dramatic technique of picking out a smaller group of characters whose story will entice a more emotional engagement than a documentary, but will also allow you to deal with the bigger story as background: if nothing else the film has made many more people aware of the fate of the Osage.

It’s an epic in that it wants to say something about the nature of modern America and its historic roots, and its length supports this epic perception, but if you approach it expecting something like The Godfather or even Gladiator you’ll find yourself wrong-footed. The film’s dramatic elements should make you care about Molly, and care in a different way about the behaviour of Hale and Burkhart, but the tone and pacing of the film limits this engagement, holding the audience at a distance.

Although it becomes clear that you’re looking at an apartheid society (with racist whites in control) because of the oil it’s a society where the Osage are settled in a high degree of material comfort. Hale and Burkhart operate as an integrated part of this society, a setup which insists on the anti-dramatic unobtrusiveness of their greed and their crimes. The characters for the most part stay calm, their conversations and reactions muted or even deadpan: De Niro only loses his temper when an insurance company refuses to pay on the policy he’d taken out on a friend (whose murder he’s organised), Di Caprio only when he loses a child (it’s important that you see Ernest as human rather than a monster, to appreciate how banal his corruption is).

This unsettling sense of everyday evil precludes certain types of heightened dramatic effect, but it is an effect in its own right. In its very quietness, its interspersion of the everyday with explicit but distanced views of murder, Killers of the Flower Moon is arguably the most shocking film Scorsese has made.

Uncomfortable viewing
The film is very long, and the evenness of its pacing doesn’t spare the viewer. But it would be truer to say the film is demanding rather than boring. It’s never less than interesting, and usually more than interesting.
It seems a curious form of criticism, to demand a work be something other than it is. Killers of the Flower Moon is a film about the Osage experience, but that experience is the context for a broader reflection on the nature of humanity. The critical suggestion seems to be that this is a form of cultural appropriation, but for that to be true you’d have to show that Scorsese had been casual in his portrayal of the Osage, and that argument won’t hold up.

Equally if the film had been shorter it would have been a very different piece. To criticise its length you’d have to show it was unnecessarily padded out. Of course the basic story could have been told in a different, shorter way, but it would not be the same story. That doesn’t mean an artist’s decisions are beyond criticism, but you’d need to show the work has failed within the terms it has set itself, or that there’s something wrong with those terms.

As it is, Killers of the Flower Moon is likely to leave you with the sense you’ve just experienced something important, and which you’re going to need to think about. It’s a good place to be.

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