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Critical Reflection: Scorsese's 'Killers of the Flower Moon' Does a Disservice to Its Source Material


Regrettably, this heavy-handed approach tends to squeeze the nuance and insight out of its source material. David Grann's thoughtful and painful nonfiction account, the inspiration behind the film, embodies a much more humble ambition. Grann’s 2017 book, a finalist for the National Book Award, unfolds as a detective story.

The narrative traces back to the forced relocation of the Osage tribe from lands in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys to supposedly worthless land in Oklahoma. With the discovery of oil, the Osage people unexpectedly become wealthy. This newfound prosperity, however, becomes a target for unscrupulous locals seeking a share of the oil wealth, known as “head rights.”

Enter Tom White, an FBI agent dispatched from Washington to investigate a series of deaths centered around the Burkhart family, particularly Mollie Burkhart, her husband Ernest, and Ernest’s uncle, William King Hale, a prominent community leader and philanthropist.

If this were a typical Hollywood narrative, it would comfortably fit into the White savior trope, with Tom White as the hero bringing villainous gangsters to justice. However, Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, deliberately avoids this route. His book's conclusion presents evidence that Hale was not acting alone.

Racism played a pivotal role, as Osage individuals were deemed legally incompetent to manage their own affairs, forcing them to rely on designated local White guardians for their money. Coupled with a biased court system, this situation created incentives for corruption and even murder. Grann’s narrative unfolds, not as a simple hero-villain tale, but as a complex exploration of systemic injustice and the collective, insidious forces at play in the Osage murders. Scorsese’s adaptation, in its pursuit of grandiosity, unfortunately sacrifices the subtleties and uncomfortable truths inherent in Grann’s account.

Hale and Burkhart faced justice and were confined to prison for a time, but according to Grann, their culpability extends beyond their individual actions. Grann contends that a pervasive "culture of murder" existed among White individuals, encompassing not only the obvious culprits like Hale and Burkhart but also doctors, judges, sheriffs, and individuals at various levels of the state and federal apparatus. In this damning account, various federal officials, including Tom White, were implicated in a system that encouraged the dispossession and brutalization of the Osage people, whose wealth was viewed as an intolerable affront by White society.

Grann's book, anchored in the detective genre with its focus on singular culprits and courtroom justice, falls short of fully encapsulating the enormity of the crime against the Osage. The pages, though insightful, are insufficient to contain or comprehensively describe the extent of the injustice. Scorsese, in his adaptation, doesn't entirely disregard these insights. He highlights how the requirement for Osage individuals to go through White guardians to access their wealth becomes a source of humiliation and vulnerability. His added coda acknowledges that not every villain faces justice.

However, Scorsese doesn't delve deeply into these threads or use them to acknowledge the inherent limitations of his own cinematic endeavor. Instead, he defaults to his familiar genre—the gangster picture. By casting De Niro as Hale and DiCaprio as Burkhart, the director commits to portraying the narrative through the lens of the "bad guys." Consequently, the audience is treated to scenes reminiscent of De Niro's previous performances in Scorsese's "Goodfellas," complete with slick threats. There's even a sequence involving a paddle, a deliberate nod to one of De Niro's iconic moments with a baseball bat in "The Untouchables," a departure from Grann's source material.

DiCaprio, given the most screen time, inhabits a role echoing characters from Scorsese's repertoire. He becomes the conflicted antihero, a character akin to DeNiro in "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" or Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas." Burkhart's love for his wife, portrayed by Lily Gladstone, is depicted as both sweetly romantic and corrupted by greed and abuse—a complexity that Burkhart himself is reluctant to acknowledge. DiCaprio's performance is a nuanced blend of sideways looks, shuffling evasion, and moments of dashing charm, meticulously crafted to captivate and, undoubtedly, court favor with the Oscar committee.

Yet, the crucial question arises: should a film addressing systemic racist violence place such emphasis on the Oscar-worthy portrayal of the White villain? Scorsese, known for his critique of the formulaic nature of blockbuster superhero films, reveals through "Killers of the Flower Moon" that his narrative, genre-rooted, humanist approach to significant filmmaking has notable limitations. There exist films that handle themes of genocide and structural violence with depth and thoughtfulness, such as Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” and Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog.” These films deliberately steer clear of pulp gestures, celebrity performances, and facile inquiries into the origins of evil, let alone facile answers.

In contrast, Scorsese's focus on individual character and internal moral struggles seems ill-suited to a narrative about White supremacy—a story where individual evil is, fundamentally, a collective endeavor. It is a structure of permission, hate, envy, and discrimination that is horrifying precisely because it is undramatic. Ernest Burkhart, in this context, isn't a captivating conflicted villain but rather another White individual whose entire community tacitly agrees that he is entitled to take what he wants from people who aren't White.

Grann, the author of the source material, grasped this. His book doesn't dwell on speculations about Burkhart's motives or soul. However, Scorsese aims for a sweeping epic, desiring drama, profound character development, and insights into the human condition. "Killers of the Flower Moon" possesses all the trademarks of a quality Scorsese film—it's meticulous and controlled. Yet, this very precision may contribute to the sense that it falls short of doing justice to the Osage's story. Grann recognizes that the Osage narrative is defined by absences, erasures, and stories that can never be fully recounted, regardless of the movie's runtime.

In the pursuit of crafting a cinematic masterpiece, Scorsese's meticulous approach, ironically, might miss the subtleties and nuances inherent in the Osage tragedy. The correction in this essay underscores the gravity of the historical context, emphasizing that the Osage people's wealth stemmed from their discovery of oil in Oklahoma.

In conclusion, "Killers of the Flower Moon" grapples with the profound challenges of translating a harrowing tale of systemic racist violence into a cinematic narrative. Martin Scorsese's trademark approach, with its focus on individual characters and internal moral struggles, may, in this instance, inadvertently overshadow the broader collective dimensions of the Osage tragedy. While the film exhibits the hallmarks of a quality Scorsese production, its meticulous control and emphasis on character development seem to clash with the undramatic yet pervasive nature of the discrimination and hate at the core of the story.

The comparison with films that navigate genocide and structural violence with depth and thoughtfulness raises questions about the efficacy of Scorsese's chosen narrative style for this specific historical atrocity. The absence of speculation about Ernest Burkhart's motives in David Grann's source material highlights a crucial distinction: the narrative isn't about individual complexities but a collective structure of permission, hatred, and discrimination. This structural backdrop, so poignantly captured by Grann, may elude the sweeping epic and profound character insights that Scorsese aspires to deliver.

Ultimately, the film's precision, completeness, and control, characteristic of Scorsese's oeuvre, may inadvertently contribute to a sense of inadequacy in fully representing the Osage people's story—a narrative defined by absences, erasures, and tales that resist being confined within the constraints of a movie's runtime. The correction emphasizing the origin of the Osage people's wealth through oil in Oklahoma underscores the importance of historical accuracy in portraying the multifaceted layers of this tragic chapter. "Killers of the Flower Moon" raises vital questions about the cinematic representation of historical injustices and the delicate balance required to honor the complexities of such narratives.