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'You talkin' to me?' How Scorsese's 'Killers of the Flower Moon' gets in your head

Lily Gladstone, left, plays Mollie Kyle in <em>Killers of the Flower Moon, </em>directed by Martin Scorsese, right.
Apple TV+
Lily Gladstone, left, plays Mollie Kyle in Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese, right.

This essay contains spoilers for Killers of the Flower Moon.

A jarring cut to a god's eye view of an indigenous man writhing on a floor, foaming at the mouth, appears early on in Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon.

It's soon followed by the melancholic voice-over of Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage Nation woman from oil-rich Fairfax, Okla., in the early 20th century, injected into the story like a sobering medicinal shot. "John Whitehair, age 23. No investigation," she intones, as black and white "footage" shows someone we assume to be Whitehair running happily on a football field. Then again, but differently, in montage: She recites other names and other ages of Osage people in her community who have been found dead, all meeting the same postmortem fate of "no investigation."

Sometimes, the corresponding image contradicts Mollie's clinical narration, as with one woman who's said to have died by suicide yet is unmistakably shown being shot in cold blood while hovering over a baby carriage by a white man. There's the "official" (read: white person's) account, and then there's what the Osage people know deep down to be true – that their own are being serially murdered and swindled of their legal rights to small fortunes – with few resources to prove it or do much about it.

Scorsese's filmography is flush with characters who love to talk and talk (or yell), sometimes at others, sometimes to themselves, other times directly to us viewers. He's long understood the power of getting inside the storyteller's mind, that when the audience feels as though they're being addressed directly, they will identify more with that character, if only for a moment.

In clumsier hands, this technique can be an expository crutch. For Scorsese, it's meant to be an immersive and occasionally empathy-inducing stylistic choice.

Killers of the Flower Moon isn't driven by narration in the same way as, say, Taxi Driver or, more recently, Silence. It's heard sparingly and from multiple perspectives – but it's at its most effective when used to bring the viewer closer to Mollie and the Osage community.

'You talkin' to me?'

Mollie's way of speech is careful and deliberate; she communicates so much with just a knowing, observant glance, maybe a sly smirk. This is a feature, not a bug. It's at least partly a defense mechanism, a way of staying on guard against the white men who circle her close-knit family and community like buzzards.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Lily Gladstone as Mollie Kyle in <em>Killers of the Flower Moon.</em>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart and Lily Gladstone as Mollie Kyle in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Of course, one of those white men is also her husband, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I vet who's the unabashedly lethal combination of lazy and greedy. It's complicated, though: She knows he's attracted to her money, and she flirtatiously calls him a "coyote." But for most of the film, she doesn't know – or, maybe, doesn't want to believe – he's responsible for many of the Osage murders, in cahoots with his slithery crime boss and uncle, William "King" Hale (Robert De Niro).

In another instance of voice-over narration, she expresses anguish as she makes preparations for her sister Anna's funeral. (Anna, too, has been murdered.) "Evil crowds my heart," she trembles. "...They say I ought to kill these white men who killed my family."

The moment is brief, but it echoes Paul Schrader's screenplay for Taxi Driver, which uses extensive voice-over narration to plunge viewers into the lonely, twisted psyche of NYC cabbie Travis Bickle: "All the animals come out at night – whores ... junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets."

Like Travis, Mollie's grown disgusted and disillusioned with everything around her, yet her circumstances could not be more different – she's a native woman, a target and a victim of white supremacy.

She won't express her despair by unleashing violence upon others, as so many angry white men in history (as well as Scorsese's oeuvre) have done. Instead, she tries to appeal to the most powerful white guy she can – President Calvin Coolidge – and advocate for an investigation into these murders.

The cruel irony is Travis Bickle is rewarded, labeled a hero for his murder spree at the climax of Taxi Driver. For her attempt to seek justice through the legal system, Mollie is slowly poisoned by the man she loves, who deliberately spikes her insulin shots to "slow her down" at the behest of Hale and their corrupt doctors.

So many white guys

Many of Scorsese's main characters have been white male antiheroes of the gangster, incel, finance bro variety. Killers is different.

In his elder years, Scorsese seems to be questioning his complicity as a filmmaker. He's not renouncing his prior artistic choices – nor should he – but he's fully cognizant of how the world around him has shifted and how he's changed, too.

Martin Scorsese attends the <em>Killers of the Flower Moon</em> photocall at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023.
Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images
Getty Images
Martin Scorsese attends the Killers of the Flower Moon photocall at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023.

An early version of the screenplay focused on federal agent Tom White, who led the investigation into the Osage murders, with DiCaprio originally cast in the role. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth were adapting it from David Grann's book of the same name, but it wasn't working.

It was essentially shaping up to be something like yet another white savior story. "After a certain point, I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,"Scorsese told Time. "Meaning I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me."

The script was retooled to examine Mollie and Ernest's fraught marriage and how racism fuels hatred and greed.

Some have said Scorsese didn't – and perhaps couldn't – go far enough in prioritizing Mollie's perspective. Upon seeing the film, Christopher Coté, one of the Osage language instructors brought on to coach the cast, expressed disappointment while acknowledging that the movie's overarching theme is complicity in white supremacy. "Martin Scorsese not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this story is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart,"he told the Hollywood Reporter.

"This film was made for everybody [who is] not Osage," he added.

Coté is correct; this aligns with how the director has talked about Killers of the Flower Moon. "Look at the world and Europe between 1930 and 1940," Scorsese said about Ernest's characterization during arecent interview with IndieWire. "There's a lot of good people who maybe through letting one thing slide and letting another thing slide and another thing slide, that they could have taken a moral stand on? They didn't ... they become complicit."

Scorsese's long been the kind of director who has no trouble breaking down his artistic intent from movie to movie, disclosing the responses he's hoped to elicit with his work. In the book Scorsese on Scorsese, he spoke about Henry Hill's absence of any shred of regret for his criminal misdeeds at the end of Goodfellas: "There's no hypocrisy about being sorry for his life, it's just, 'Gee, no more fun.' ... I think the audience should get angry at him and I would hope they do — and maybe with the system which allows this."

Perhaps because cultural attitudes have shifted and Scorsese's cinematic preoccupations with morality continue to evolve as he ages, Killers might be one of his films that comes closest to shrinking that gap between his intent and his audience's reactions, with viewers like Coté excepted.

From the beginning, the "good" among us are always meant to side with Mollie and her community. The very first scene, for instance, is a gathering of the Osage community, led by Chief Bonnicastle (Yancey Red Corn), who laments the encroachment of whiteness on indigenous culture, priming viewers for the horrors that will unfold throughout this movie.

It's also worth noting that Mollie's voice-over narration (and later on, that of one of her sisters, Rita) communicates palpable fear and anxiety. In contrast, Ernest's single instance of narration is a recitation of some lines from a book about Osage culture over a montage that shows him and a couple of goons robbing a couple at gunpoint. "Can you spot the wolves in this picture?" it concludes. (Ernest is the wolf, obviously.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in <em>Killers of the Flower Moon.</em>
/ Apple TV+
Apple TV+
Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

There's no catharsis here, only an easy, nasty slippage into complicity with white supremacy on the part of all the white characters in the film. Ernest's sheer gullibility and lack of smarts don't make him any less evil. And it doesn't matter if Ernest "loves" Mollie – he's still more than willing to harm her and her family in the name of greed. For the ultimate betrayal of his wife and family, he goes unpunished because he's willing to rat on Hale, the big bad wolf.

In effect, Ernest is the stand-in for many average humans, and many of those average humans are likely sitting in the Killers' audience, watching a version of themselves on screen, whether they realize it or not.

'There was no mention of the murders.'

In Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street, mobster Henry Hill and finance bro Jason Belfort dish the play-by-play of their respective rise and fall with exhilaration and flair right up to the end, almost as if they were a flamboyant friend recounting a wild story over drinks. History is filled with men like them who have been given the platform to shape their own mythology into a digestible form of entertainment. The Osage and other oppressed groups haven't traditionally had such luck.

The curious epilogue of Killers is like so: Rather than presenting the generic, staid factoid title screens and archival photos that accompany the endings of most "based on a true story" movies, it's staged as a midcentury radio play performed on a stage in front of a live audience. "True Crime Stories" is sponsored by none other than J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

A white radio host narrates the fates of the main characters against a cutesy and melodramatic presentation (sound effects mimicking the clang of a jail cell door or the scritch of pen to paper) that starkly contrasts with the dark and meditative tone of the rest of the film. And said fates are depressing – Hale is sentenced to life imprisonment but eventually paroled against the wishes of the Osage community, living to the ripe old age of 87. Ernest avoids jail time for testifying against his uncle and spends his final days divorced from Mollie and living in a trailer with his brother. Mollie dies of diabetes aged 50. In a cameo, Scorsese steps forward on stage to note that "there was no mention of the murders" in Mollie's obituary.

All of it feels perfunctory and profound, like Scorsese is imagining the funhouse mirror version of the entire movie – whitewashed and sanded down, a world where the story has a clear-cut "hero," and it's Tom White/the federal government. In other words, the kind of story that's been told time and time again to the diminishment and erasure of indigenous voices. As he seeks to counter that tradition, he knows it won't do pretending as if it never happened. That's just another form of complicity.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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