Growing up in Oklahoma, the injustice and pain inflicted upon the Native American people was typically unspoken, but ever-present; like it had soaked in and permeated the red dirt underneath our feet.
But there was a time when that injustice and pain was very much alive and active, destroying lives to an almost shocking degree.
Venerable filmmaker Martin Scorsese shines a bright light on a specific example of this time with “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The film focuses on members of the Osage tribe who became very wealthy from oil being discovered on their land in the 1920s, and the subsequent bloodshed and betrayal they suffered at the hands of people they trusted and loved.
The result is a sprawling epic that is part Western and part crime thriller where the banality of evil plays out in heartbreaking fashion.
The story centers on Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio in possibly the least-glamorous performance of his career), a lower-class schlub who returns from World War I to work for his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), a powerful rancher in northeast Oklahoma.
Living in and amongst the Osage people, Hale puts Ernest in the path of Mollie (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family members begin suffering unexplained deaths and unsolved murders.
Ernest and Mollie fall in love and get married, all while Hale continues to use Ernest in increasingly criminal and vile activities to secure as many Osage oil rights as possible.
The relationships between Mollie, Ernest and Hale form the heart of the movie and all three actors deliver outstanding performances. Nobody does charming and menacing like De Niro and this is one of his best late-career performances as the master manipulator behind all of the carnage.
Ernest is a greedy and craven doofus, bud DiCaprio injects him with enough humanity to make us believe that he does truly love Mollie and that in different circumstances, he could have been a halfway decent person.
But it’s Gladstone who truly elevates this film as her stoic portrayal of Mollie shows a strength, determination and grace in the face of ultimate betrayal that is captivating to watch.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” lacks the zip and style of Scorsese’s early crime dramas, but then at 80 years old, he’s a different filmmaker. His attention to detail and scope are still very much in play here (as seen in the film’s divisive three-and-a-half hour runtime), but this is a meditative work on evil lurking in plain sight.
Scorsese also shows a tremendous amount of respect for the Osage people, portraying them not as merely helpless victims, but as a people caught in the crosshairs of history trying to find a way forward for themselves and their children.
If “Killers of the Flower Moon” did nothing more than simply make people aware of this sad, true chapter of American history, then it would be a success. But it goes beyond, exposing the very best and worst of the human spirit on the grandest scale possible.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is rated R for violence, some grisly images and language.