History is a funny thing. It can be cruel, it can be informative. It can be weird or nuanced, even be entertaining. In the case of Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s all of these and so much more. 

Before we go any further, it’s important to acknowledge that although I am Indigenous, I am Apsáalooke, not Osage. In addition, although I am going to try to be very light on the spoilers and abstract things, I am still going to reference things about the plot. If you want to see this movie without hearing my opinion first, please go do so now! (TL;DR: It’s worth it!)

Lily Gladstone sits next to Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

This film is almost a masterpiece.

It features a star-studded cast giving amazing performances. It was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese. It’s even based on a critically acclaimed novel of the same name by author David Grann.

So, why do I say it’s “almost” a masterpiece?

It’s an interplay of where this story began, and where it ended up. You see, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is a true story. It’s a nonfiction book about true events. Contrarily, Killers of the Flower Moon is a dramatized retelling of the same story through the lens of a modern Western.

The story is accurate to history. As far as my knowledge goes, it does a fair job of recounting what happened. It remains a story full of truth. The problem is that the film is tainted by perspective. Not my perspective, per se, but the perspective of the movie itself.  

Lily Gladstone, Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

As the title of the novel suggests, the film is about the Osage Murders. These were a string of homicides between 1921 and 1926 dubbed “the Reign of Terror”, for their pointlessness, viciousness, and seeming randomness. For “five” years indigenous people of the Osage tribe lost their lives, and nobody could figure out why.

The motivations were simple enough to figure out. The Osage had struck oil several years before, and both the tribe and individual members were comparatively wealthy. Other people wanted access to that wealth. For awhile, people had made use of the “headship” system to steal from the tribe. Now, certain people wanted to do so more directly. However, no one could really figure out who was committing these murders. Local law enforcement was “stumped.” The Osage attempted to reach out to the Bureau of Investigation, but “somehow” their representative was murdered before they completed their mission.

With no other options, Mollie, an Osage woman who had suffered the loss of her mother and siblings, as well as a mysterious wasting disease, resolved to make the trip herself. It was Mollie who finally managed to reach out to the federal government for help. It was only then that the crimes were solved, and the full depths of depravity were revealed.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon.

The sheriff’s department hadn’t been so much stumped, as it had been corrupt. In fact, one of the deputies had been the mastermind of the whole thing. His nephew, Ernest, had been his willing accomplice, as well as Mollie’s husband.

Ernest had married Mollie explicitly to gain the headship rights of her and her family. He’d helped arrange the deaths of his in-laws and had even been poisoning Mollie’s insulin, resulting in her apparent illness. After the Bureau revealed these crimes, Ernest received justice, but for “five” years he helped terrorize an entire reservation.     

So, it’s a real shame that they decided to hang the movie on Ernest. The film has an incredible cast that portrays dynamic, interesting individuals. Not the least among these is Mollie herself. She was an incredibly resilient woman who survived pain and heartbreak, and a dangerous journey to bring help to her people.

But we’re not following her for the majority of the film. Rather, our POV character isn’t an Osage at all. Instead, we’re following Ernest, a veteran of World War I, a former taxi driver, and, more importantly, a murderer, a terrorist, and one of the primary antagonists of the situation. 

This is ironic, given that a big point of the story is how often the Osage of the time lost control of their money to white “guardians.” The headship system meant that, if an Osage was declared “incompetent” for whatever reason, control of their assets would default to a court-appointed individual. Couple this with the rampant corruption of the courts, and the racist attitude towards indigenous people as savages, and it becomes clear how easily Osage families could lose everything.

Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

So in a way, it’s incredibly apropos that the focus of the story, and thus control of the narrative, remains centered on Ernest rather than the Osage Woman who suffered at his hands. As our main character, we’re supposed to connect with him, to empathize with him on some level. I didn’t find this aspect of the film a very appealing prospect.

Observant readers will note that I keep using quotation marks for “five” years. That’s because, although the film omitted it, the book discusses evidence that suggests deaths as far back as the 1910s and as late as the 1930s connected to the events of the reign of terror. So that “five” years, could really be more than 20. The sad truth is that events like these still happen.

The story is dramatized, but it has elements that are familiar to many indigenous people in the United States. Although a hundred years have passed, some of these plot points could come ripped from today’s headlines. Indigenous women still go missing with startling regularity and getting local law enforcement to investigate or care is incredibly difficult. The Guardian system may not be the same anymore, but plenty of systems still exist that echo it. Indigenous people still battle the idea that they’re “simple people.”

I want to end this by restating and expanding on my earlier assessment: Killers of the Flower Moon is almost a masterpiece. The writing is fantastic. The story is engaging, despite the film’s long running time, (clocking in at a whopping three hours and twenty-six minutes!) The film’s portrayals are incredibly powerful and well done. Every member of the cast delivers an excellent performance. Special mention should go to Lily Gladstone, for the raw and powerful dignity she imbues in Mollie.   

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon.

However, none of that can change the decision to center this story on Ernest.

I understand the necessity of change when you’re adapting a book for the silver screen. I don’t envy the task of converting a nonfiction book about historical homicide into something engaging for a modern audience. Equally understandable is the allure of telling the story from a villain’s point of view. It’s an interesting subversion of classic expectations. I understand it much less when we’re talking about a real-life person committing atrocities that still happen in the modern day.

It’s especially galling when Mollie is right there, and her story would have been more compelling, as well as more poignant for the subject matter. Instead, the film relegates her to what is essentially a secondary character in Ernest’s story.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a powerful movie that tells a tale of murder and betrayal that’s incredibly visceral and evocative. It’s an incredibly important movie that throws a spotlight on a piece of history few talk about. Even if the spotlight could have been positioned on a much better figure. It would just be nice if the problems of the story weren’t still viscerally familiar a century later, right down to the misplaced spotlight.

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