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'Killers of the Flower Moon' Is a Powerful Epic About Awful White People (As Told From the POV of the White People)
A few thoughts on Scorsese's latest.
This post will contain basic plot details about Killers of the Flower Moon that are revealed in the trailer.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whose stories we get to hear these days, whose perspectives are centered in the narratives we consume. This summer, my entire timeline lit up with people defending Christopher Nolan’s decision to exclude Japanese perspective from Oppenheimer. But few of those defenders seemed to wonder why we rarely get the Japanese perspective in our media or whether that perspective might be worth highlighting in a story that probably shaped Japan’s history as much as it did ours. As I mentioned in my piece on the subject, I have no issue with folks like Nolan telling the stories he wants to tell. But I think it’s always worth considering who gets to tell these stories, who the intended audience is, and what the net effect of these stories is.
I feel a similar pattern of discourse about to unfold with Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, another film by one of our great auteur directors that also happens to center the perspective of white people. Like Oppenheimer, you cannot accuse this movie of false advertising. It is, in fact, about the titular killers and it centers their story.
Killers is set at the turn of the 20th century when the discovery of oil has brought vast wealth to Osage Nation in Oklahoma. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, a man who comes back from war and joins forces with his uncle, William Hale (a delightfully unctuous Robert De Niro), who has his eyes set on that oil money. Burkhart also falls in love with Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and their romance will soon complicate Burkhart’s plans.
Like many of Scorsese’s films, Killers of the Flower Moon feels less like a movie and more like a dynamic window into a different time. Every aspect of the film’s production is suffused with meticulousness and the net effect is to make the audience feel like they are witnessing history.
Scorsese’s films have gotten longer over time, and at 3 hours and 26 minutes long, Killers is one of his longest. While some will feel like its plot doesn’t demand such a length, Scorsese uses this luxurious runtime to provide authentic glimpses of the plight of the Osage people, to let certain story elements play out at a deliberate pace, and to fully lay out the agony of some of the characters as the film draws towards its conclusion. I didn’t mind the length but I also understand why people might get restless. You have to be into Scorsese’s philosophy on letting his movies breathe a bit in order to really enjoy this movie.
The performances in this film are, in a word, incredible. Leonardo DiCaprio is at the height of his powers and his performance as Burkhart is tragic and complex. Burkhart stands in the middle of a confluence of historical forces and it’s upsetting to watch as things spiral out of control around him. Lily Gladstone’s performance as Mollie is another highlight — her character is the moral center of the film. Sadly, Mollie (and the Osage perspective in general) gets totally sidelined as the film goes on. It’s really a film about Burkhart, and while DiCaprio is a capable anchor for the film to steady itself on, Mollie’s journey is sorely missed.
So Killers of the Flower Moon is an incredible movie about awful white people doing terrible things. But to what end?
There’s a viral clip going around from the premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon of Osage language consultant Christopher Cote discussing his reaction to the film. Here’s what he said (from The Hollywood Reporter):
As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. […]
Killers is vicious in its depiction of the inhumanity of white people towards the Osage. They are murdered in brutal, graphic fashion. Their murderers turn around and pretend to be friends to the Osage, praising their leaders, donating to their causes, and marrying their women. The fact that the events depicted happened only a century ago or so is a stark reminder that evil often doesn’t come looking like the devil. Sometimes it’s a white businessman wearing a respectable suit and a smile.
But, like Oppenheimer, Killers is ultimately a movie from the white perspective, centering the feelings of white people who are involved in committing atrocities against people of color. The journey, the joys, and the suffering of white people takes center stage. Burkhart is the one character that gets the most complete arc in the film. And while the Osage people are rendered lovingly — Scorsese consulted with Osage leaders and hired numerous consultants, and the film does include some of Mollie’s POV — it’s the oppressor’s perspective through which we primarily experience the film through.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. As a film, Killers is a rich text and Scorsese brings to life any work he touches. But it’s also worth noting that films that examine the plight of white people being awful is something we’ve seen countless times. And while the film morally condemns the actions of those depicted, I can’t help but wonder about the agony of the oppressed and how, once again, their suffering (but not their perspective) is being used to sell movie tickets.
[Side note: I think Scorsese explicitly grapples with this idea as well in the film, but in a way I can’t discuss yet due to spoilers.]
Putting all that aside, even if I accept that the premise of this film is worthwhile and valuable, I still come away thinking that the film’s story is a bit unbalanced. Without getting too much into detail, the way the film sidelines Mollie in the second half of the film is genuinely baffling. There are many moments when it would be immensely valuable to understand what that character is thinking and feeling, but we’re given no access to it. It makes the depiction of Mollie feel incomplete and it hurts the film as a whole.
In that same interview at the premiere, Christopher Cote also stated the following:
I think in the end, the question that you can be left with is: How long will you be complacent with racism? How long will you go along with something and not say something, not speak up, how long will you be complacent? I think that’s because this film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage. For those that have been disenfranchised, they can relate, but for other countries that have their acts and their history of oppression, this is an opportunity for them to ask themselves this question of morality, and that’s how I feel about this film.
I understand a bit about how Hollywood works. I realize it’s difficult for any film to get made these days — let alone one from an Osage perspective — and that only someone with the filmography of Martin Scorsese can command the budget and clout to make a Killers of the Flower Moon. I earnestly hope that Killers causes people to reflect on the capacity of humans to do evil. I hope it causes white folks to think about their role in systems of oppression. But I also worry that by centering the killers and leaving out the Osage perspective from vast swathes of the movie, it missed a critical opportunity to further educate and create even more empathy.
Despite all my qualms with the film, I still believe that Scorsese is a filmmaker with no equal. As I emerged, dazed, from my screening of Killers of the Flower Moon, I felt a sense of serene gratitude. Gratitude that we live in a unique (and probably limited) time period when companies like Apple will still spend $200 million to let Martin Scorsese make a film like this. Gratitude that I got to see an epic film like this film in a theater, which is becoming an ever-rarer treat these days. And gratitude that Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest filmmakers to ever to do it, is still making work as vibrant as ever at the age of 80.
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Other Stuff David Chen Has Made This Week
On Decoding TV, Sarah Marrs and I had a lengthy discussion about The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s a mixed bag for sure, but it’s hugely ambitious with enough fun elements to keep you coming back all the way to its final episode.
Also on Decoding TV, Patrick Klepek and I are covering Loki season 2, which is a show that has amazing elements but constantly feels like it’s fighting against the Marvel formula. Here’s our review of the latest episode.
On Decoding Reality, we covered the final two episodes of season 5 of Love Is Blind. It’s been a catastrophically bad season of the show for a variety of reasons but these podcast episodes have been fun.
[PAID ONLY] On my personal Patreon, I do a podcast called Dave on Dave, featuring David Cho. This week, we discussed what’s giving me an existential crisis these days.
[PAID ONLY] Also on my personal Patreon, I recorded a life update and shared some of my thoughts on Killers of the Flower moon in audio form.
On Tiktok and Instagram, I discussed Scholastic’s recent decision to make it easier to exclude books about minority groups.
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