In 2017, writer David Grann of The New Yorker delivered an investigative gem—a 250-page yarn that shed new light on the serial killings of Osage tribesmen in Oklahoma, US, in the 1920s. At the time of the killings, the Osage Indians owned one of the largest oil deposits in the country. They let white oilmen lease land from them and extract oil for a dividend, and the resultant economic boom around their territory attracted characters honourable and dishonourable—from big-city businessman, engineers and financiers, to bootleggers, soothsayers, cowboys and fortune-hunters. The oil money made the Osage Nation unimaginably rich, but the tribesmen also began losing hold on their land.
And then the murders started. Between 1920 and 1926, as many as 60 tribesmen were killed under suspicious circumstances. Years later, the Bureau of Investigations, the precursor to the FBI, would be called into the reservation, and its investigation would blow the lid off a white-supremacist conspiracy to kill Osage Indian landlords, deprive the community of its property rights, and steal its oil wealth.
Grann called his book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. In the very first paragraph of its first chapter, he explained the meaning of the title. “In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma,” he writes. “There are Johnny-jump-ups and spring beauties and little bluets. The Osage writer John Joseph Mathews observed that the galaxy of petals makes it look as if the ‘gods had left confetti’. In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water. The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground. This is why the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.”
The little bluets of Grann’s story, of course, are the Osage Indians; and the creepy spiderworts are the white settlers. Grann tells this grand tale of sociopathy from the perspective of Mollie Brown, a full-blooded Osage whose ancestors were, in the 1870s, driven from their lands in pastoral Kansas to the rocky Oklahoma reservation that was, at the time, thought to be worthless. He begins the story when Mollie is 33, and is happily married to a 28-year-old white man named Ernest Burkhart. The oil deposits had by then been found, and the first batch of wells dug. The Osages were beginning to understand the magic of money.
“The amount was initially for only a few dollars, but over time, as more oil was tapped, the dividends grew into the hundreds, then the thousands,” Grann writes. “And virtually every year the payments increased, like the prairie creeks that joined to form the wide, muddy Cimarron, until the tribe members had collectively accumulated millions and millions of dollars. (In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million, the equivalent today of more than $400 million.) The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”
But most fortunes come at a price. In the Osage’s case, it was death, intermarriage and the gradual depletion of their tribe. Wealthy Osages fall prey to diseases of the body and mysterious ailments of the mind. No cases are registered. In fact, there is no system to register cases, and nor is there a proper police department in the reservation to investigate the deaths. Age-old rituals and institutions that once protected the Osages from harm, and bound them together, are gradually replaced by an alien and skewed justice system. A system dominated by white prospectors and greedy bankers, all of whom are despots who feign benevolence. As Grann’s story progresses, Mollie discovers terrifying truths about the deaths in the community, and what they mean to her tribe, family and, above all, marriage.
As a book, Killers of the Flower Moon is a tight little triumph of journalism. But the new film adaptation, which carries the same title and is directed by Martin Scorsese, is anything but tight. With screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Scorsese has moulded the story into a three-and-a-half-hour film—the kind of sprawling epic that is best enjoyed when one is sprawled out on the sofa oneself, having watched the film at least once in theatres.
A key departure from the book is that Scorsese makes Ernest, Mollie’s husband who is revealed to be on the dark side, the main character. This poses a challenge to the audience: It would have been fairly easy for a non-Osage viewer to identify with Mollie, but with the “handsome devil” Ernest as the protagonist, an average viewer would have to really work hard to not empathise with a gambling drunkard with no scruples.
Ernest is played with much relish by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose magnetism Scorsese last used for a similar storytelling provocation—The Wolf of Wall Street. Also, with Ernest in the central role, Scorsese does away with the book’s air of murder mystery and the FBI angle, and parachutes the viewer right into sordid centre of the white supremacist plot to eliminate the Osage Indians.
The opening scenes show Ernest returning from World War I to his uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro, matching the younger actor toe to toe), a charismatic businessman-preacher that the Osage Indians consider their greatest benefactor. Even before the film’s first quarter is over, Ernest and Mollie are married and the viewer is made fully aware of the diabolical plot at work.
Not that Mollie is sidelined. Played by Lily Gladstone, Mollie is a pillar of the community. In the old days, Osage clans had groups called Travellers in the Mist taking the lead whenever the tribe was undergoing upheavals and venturing into unfamiliar territory. Mollie is a modern Traveller in the Mist, although she realises rather too late that it was her marriage that had been the mist that blocked her vision all along.
The strong trifecta of lead performances are complemented by a delightful character ensemble. There is, among others, Scott Shepherd as Byron Burkhart, Ernest’s vile younger brother; Brendan Fraser as Hale’s pushy attorney; and Jesse Plemons as BoI agent Thomas White who cracks the case. Plemons was originally offered the role of Ernest, while DiCaprio was meant to play White. A more naturalistic and inward actor than DiCaprio, it is hard not to wonder what Plemons would have done with the role.
One person that Scorsese would not have dared substitute in this film would have been editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with whom he has made 21 films in 56 years. A record three of them have won Oscars for best editing. Having achieved in this film a splicing texture that is as soft as moonlight, Killers of The Flower Moon marks their partnership’s zenith. (The editing pyrotechnics of the last half-hour of Oppenheimer is certainly more dazzling, but what Schoonmaker and Scorsese have accomplished with this film could well become the lasting benchmark.)
The score by Robbie Robertson, marrying country and cowboyish elements into American Indian rhythms, is outstanding for the sense of foreboding it brings to the proceedings. (Robertson, too, had long been a Scorsese collaborator—The Irishman being their previous project. He died on August 9, aged 80.)
The most innovative part in the whole film comes at the end. Instead of showing the obligatory captions about what ultimately happened to each of the principal characters, Scorsese stages a radio broadcast-like epilogue to the plot. And he himself appears in a cameo. The short gig may be tonally loud, but it somehow fits nicely with the objectives that Scorsese is clearly trying to achieve with this film.
Even better, most Scorsese films tend to grow on you with each viewing. Killers of the Flower Moon should be no different, even for those who do not like long movies.
Film: Killers of the Flower Moon
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons and others