Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Tragic Saga of Exploitation and Betrayal

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon reveals a harrowing story of greed and murder, highlighting American history’s hidden, dark aspects and showcasing a tragic tale of exploitation and betrayal that has been kept secret for too long. The film’s haunting portrayal of the Osage Nation’s plight, drawn from David Grann’s well-documented non-fiction book, is a stark reminder of the pervasive racism and injustice marred this chapter in our nation’s past. As the oil boom on Osage land ushered in unimaginable wealth, the Osage people found themselves at the mercy of avaricious outsiders who saw them as nothing more than obstacles to their insatiable pursuit of riches. The systematic campaign to strip them of their wealth, heritage, and rights mirrors a microcosm of the broader crimes committed against Native Americans in the name of white superiority, territorial expansion, monetary gain, and the dubious concept of Manifest Destiny.

In the late 19th century, the discovery of one of the largest oil reserves in the United States marked a turning point for the Osage Nation. Their newfound prosperity was a beacon of hope, but it soon became tainted by treachery. The heart-wrenching twist in this tale came when opportunistic white individuals manipulated Congress to enforce a law that appointed guardians for Osage individuals of mixed descent or more, effectively robbing them of their autonomy. This chilling mechanism ensured that only those with predominantly white ancestry were financially responsible. These court-appointed guardians, driven by greed and entitlement, did not hesitate to exploit their positions, embezzling funds and charging exorbitant fees for essential goods and services, thus plunging the Osage people into a web of deceit and economic ruin. To compound their misery, some white men cunningly infiltrated Osage families through marriage, only to see their spouses and family members mysteriously vanish or meet untimely deaths, leaving the opportunistic interlopers to inherit the Osage wealth.

The Chilling Series of Murders

Killers of the Flower Moon delves into a chilling and calculated series of murders that unfolded in Oklahoma between 1918 and 1931, shrouding an entire community in fear and despair. The acknowledged fatalities of 60 Osage Nation individuals only scratch the surface, as there is a high probability of additional victims concealed within the depths of this malevolent scheme. In crafting their screenplay, Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese take a bold departure from David Grann’s investigative approach, focusing on the intricate and alarming relationship between Ernest Burkhart and his Osage bride, Mollie. This shift in perspective offers a haunting exploration of workplace betrayal and the twisted logic that drives individuals to harm those they hold dear, whether family, friends, or neighbors, all in the ruthless pursuit of substantial financial gain.

Killers of the Flower Moon aligns with a recurring theme in Scorsese’s distinguished career: critiquing a corrupt and violent social system. The film deftly alternates its narrative lens between Mollie, who grieves the heinous crimes against her people, and Ernest, an unwitting accomplice in Hale’s malevolent scheme to eliminate the Osage and seize their invaluable rights. Mollie’s helplessness in the face of her deteriorating health due to poisoned insulin injections provided by Ernest underscores the profound tragedy at the core of this story. Just as the once-proud Osage Nation leaders were warriors ready to confront their adversaries directly, they found themselves powerless against shadowy forces and betrayal.

The film paints a multifaceted picture of these crimes, encompassing covert machinations, cold-blooded murders, and spectacles of violence. In doing so, it draws eerie parallels to historical events like the Tulsa Race Massacre and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, underscoring the pervasive racism and violence that tainted this era. Ernest emerges as a tragically feeble and easily manipulated character who never questions his uncle or his ominous directives. His inability to fathom the consequences of his actions and the damage they inflict upon his perceived love for Mollie forms a central theme of the film. Robert De Niro’s nuanced performance adds a critical layer to Killers of the Flower Moon, capturing a man torn between his dual identities, the caring husband and the implicated killer. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal showcases a character oblivious to the ramifications of his choices, with self-reflection only dawning upon him in a pivotal encounter with Mollie toward the film’s conclusion.

Authenticity in Representing Native American Communities

De Niro’s performance is a masterclass in character portrayal. He skillfully oscillates between Hale’s seemingly benevolent façade, which exudes power and control, and the depths of his manipulative malevolence. The actor infuses the character with a sinister sense of humor, finding the darkness even in seemingly ordinary phrases. It is evident when the apprehended Hale audaciously claims innocence to the extent of a newborn baby or when he casually advises Ernest in front of Mollie about the need for caution in managing Mollie’s finances. De Niro’s ability to convey the complexity of Hale’s character adds depth to the film, making the audience both repelled and intrigued by this enigmatic figure. Lily Gladstone’s performance in the film is equally compelling, as she brings an introspective and challenging dimension to her character. Her background from the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana adds authenticity to the role, highlighting the film’s commitment to representing Native American communities accurately. This project, funded by a high-budget streaming platform and shot on location within the Osage reservation in Oklahoma, signifies a bold step in filmmaking, pushing boundaries and striving for cultural authenticity.

Killers of the Flower Moon deliberately maintains a measured pace, departing from the rapid momentum of Scorsese’s previous three works. The late Robbie Robertson’s musical score accentuates this tempo, creating an unrelenting atmosphere of fear, even in seemingly pleasant scenes filled with deception. The film’s pacing and soundtrack harmonize, immersing the audience in the haunting and suspenseful world of the Osage murders. While Killers of the Flower Moon is not intended to mark the end of Scorsese’s filmmaking career, it carries a poignant awareness of the director’s impermanence. As he steps into the limelight with this production, Scorsese conveys to his audience a sense that his era of filmmaking may have passed, and the industry might not see another visionary like him in the future. Human vulnerability has always been a recurring theme in Scorsese’s works. However, in his more recent films, including Silence, where Jesuit missionaries endure brutal torture for their faith, and The Irishman, which explores the solitude of a mass murderer in a nursing home, this theme becomes particularly pronounced. These films grapple with the emptiness of life lived and the impending void that awaits, a reflection of the director’s contemplation of his artistic legacy.

Grappling with the Inevitability of Decline

Killers of the Flower Moon does not just grapple with the inevitability of decline in the life of its protagonist, DiCaprio’s character, approaching the milestone age of 50, a critical juncture in the film industry. It goes further, delving into the broader theme of the fragility of lives and histories, both individual and collective. Historical estimates suggest that dozens to hundreds of Osage Indians met gruesome fates due to their oil wealth in the early 20th century. These crimes persisted, often because the orchestrators held the power to obstruct investigations, emphasizing the pervasive injustice of the era. However, the film portrays these heinous acts as individual crimes, highlighting the short-lived nature of the investigations in the face of corruption and power. Drawing from David Grann’s best-selling non-fiction book, the film delves deep into the intricate relationship between history and narrative, shedding light on how storytelling can bolster or undermine the historical record.

Moreover, Killers of the Flower Moon transcends being a mere historical drama; it becomes a vehicle for exploring the intangible knowledge and heritage that shape a culture and a nation beyond what can be documented. It serves as a metaphorical graveyard for individuals and a way of life that was systematically eroded. The scene featuring tribal elders blending their traditions with the newfound wealth from oil is a powerful symbol of the transformation of the modern world colliding with age-old traditions, bringing sudden wealth and its moral decay to the forefront. As a victim of white men’s greed for her grandchild’s inheritance, Mollie’s story takes center stage, with the film’s substantial budget of around $200 million underlining the massive exploration of the moral decay at the core of American enterprise.

The film’s conclusion, delivered as a radio drama, introduces an additional level of intricacy to the story. Authorized by the FBI and sponsored by Lucky Strike, this play focuses on the crimes of Ernest and Hale, leaving the rest of Mollie’s life, both before and after the murder, shrouded in mystery and beyond the scope and imagination of the play. The film concludes with a news report of Mollie’s death, emphasizing the significant gaps in understanding her multifaceted existence, a poignant reminder that history often leaves much untold.

Shifting Landscape of Cinema

Scorsese’s exceptional directorial work often carries a subtle self-reference, but in the context of Killers of the Flower Moon, it feels more like a conclusive and reverberating reflection. It is as if he is taking stock of his illustrious career, acknowledging his achievements, yet still sensing more to be done and stories to be told. While he has been instrumental in mentoring young filmmakers like Joanna Hogg and Ari Aster, and his Film Foundation tirelessly preserves global film history, he recognizes that the medium he has dedicated his life to is increasingly shifting towards commercialization and potentially leaving behind the essence of cinematic artistry. Nevertheless, Scorsese has no intentions of concluding his career with Killers of the Flower Moon. He is already immersed in multiple other projects, including the adaptation of another book by Grann.

Nevertheless, the film resonates as a farewell, albeit not necessarily permanent. In a recent interview, Scorsese spoke of his interactions with old friends as if they were the last, hinting at his readiness to make his final bow, yield the stage, and accept the closing words from the film, even if not necessarily the final image. As he concludes his speech, the film transitions to an Osage ceremonial scene, where bodies are encircled as drums and chants fill the air, signifying that while it might be time for him to step back, the impact of his teachings and the echoes they generate are just beginning.

In brief, Killers of the Flower Moon is a tremendous film that fearlessly delves into the moral decay at the heart of America, leaving an indelible mark on Scorsese’s storied career. This film is not just a cinematic exploration of a dark chapter in American history; it is a heartfelt and authentic portrayal of the experiences and heritage of the Osage community. To ensure its authenticity, the filmmakers consulted with tribal leaders and cultural advisors, taking great care to honor the Osage perspective. Real Osage individuals played significant roles in front of and behind the camera, adding depth and authenticity to the film. Notably, actors Gladstone, DiCaprio, and De Niro demonstrated their commitment to the project by learning the Osage language for their respective roles.

Unlike typical Hollywood productions that often rely on clichés or stereotypes, Scorsese’s film deliberately avoids these pitfalls. It refrains from presenting the Osage culture through hagiography or negative stereotypes. Instead, the film immerses itself in the Osage worldview, embracing their spiritual belief system without hinting at irony or mysticism, creating a more authentic and respectful representation of their culture. Killers of the Flower Moon serves as a testament to the power of cinema to tell meaningful stories and illuminate forgotten histories, all while fostering cultural understanding and empathy. It is a cinematic achievement that entertains and educates, and its impact extends far beyond the screen.

Reflecting on the Osage Way of Life

The film beautifully and poignantly reflects on the Osage way of life in its imaginative opening and closing scenes, bookending the narrative with a contemplative exploration of tradition, change, and the effects of the encroachment of “new ways” introduced by white settlers. Osage elders express a sense of loss and regret as they acknowledge the threat these changes pose to their long-held traditions. This sentiment resonates with audiences as they witness the gradual erosion of a once-robust culture. As the film unfolds, it introduces moments of humor that serve as a poignant counterpoint to the underlying tragedy. With the influx of money and technology into Osage culture, the community playfully acknowledges their newfound wealth, even dubbing the Osage Nation as “the chosen people by accident.” This wry humor offers a glimpse into the community’s resilience in the face of change, highlighting their ability to adapt and find humor amidst adversity.

Adding a unique touch to the film’s conclusion, Scorsese opts for a distinctive approach in the end credits. Instead of the typical scrolling text, he envisions a live performance of a silent radio program on stage. This creative choice echoes the film’s central theme and adds an unconventional and artistic dimension to the story’s closing, leaving the audience with a lasting and thought-provoking impression. Furthermore, Killers of the Flower Moon pays a meaningful homage to James Young Deer, a pioneering Native American director in early Hollywood. Deer addressed the Osage murders in his now-lost film, Tragedy of the Osage Hills, released in 1926. This independent production by Deer and his collaborator Frank L. Thompson under Thompson Moving Pictures is a tragic story, with all its prints lost over time and Deer’s career marred by scandal. Ironically, the promotional material at the time had touted Deer’s film as A Picture You Will Never Forget, an unintentional foreshadowing of its eventual obscurity and the enduring impact of the Osage murders on American history and cinema. This nod to a forgotten chapter in film history adds depth to the narrative. It emphasizes the importance of remembering and acknowledging these historical events, even when they have been relegated to the shadows.

Confronting Moral Decay in American Society

Killers of the Flower Moon is a captivating cinematic journey that urges us to contemplate how far individuals are willing to exploit others for their advantage and their extraordinary capacity to justify and detach themselves from these deeds about their moral beliefs and personal responsibility. The film skillfully portrays white individuals as a diverse range of characters, each akin to various animals, which serves as a stark commentary on the unique human trait of targeting one another based on race or culture, manipulating them, and ultimately draining them of their rights, wealth, and dignity.

In summary, Killers of the Flower Moon is a monumental film that fearlessly confronts the moral decay at the heart of American society. The film’s innovative epilogue, the evocative radio play, and Scorsese’s exceptional direction collectively give it a sense of closure, even if not necessarily permanent. The film’s success and its broader accessibility, extending beyond just the Osage community, play a crucial role in the ongoing fight for the rights and justice of marginalized communities throughout America. It is a poignant reminder of the importance of telling these historical stories, honoring the past, and working toward a more just and equitable future for all.

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