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The True Story Behind Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

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Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Martin Scorsese’s latest release, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” debuted at the 76th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, prior to its wide release on Oct. 20. The film is based on David Grann’s true crime book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” Scorsese’s adaptation tells the true story of the Osage Nation, an Oklahoma-based tribe that fell victim to a series of brutal murders in the early 1920s. 

After the discovery of oil on Osage land, the nation’s members came to be known as the wealthiest people per capita. Their wealth made them a major target for white settlers, who went on an onslaught of robberies and attacks against the Osage people.

The film focuses primarily on Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a registered member of the tribe, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white World War I veteran who marries Mollie under the guidance of his uncle, William Hale (Robert De Niro). White men heavily courted the Osage women in their attempt to reap the financial benefits of Osage families. This was the motivation for Ernest, but even more intensely, for Hale, who informed his nephew of the potential involved in marrying into the Osage tribe. It is later revealed that both DiCaprio’s and De Niro’s characters played a firsthand role in the attacks, despite fostering an intimate relationship with the Osage people. 

Despite the Osage’s sudden wealth, their freedom remained suppressed under white society. Any Osage deemed unable to handle their money was assigned a guardian to control their finances. The guardians often took advantage of this position and withheld much of the Osage people’s wealth, going as far as to steal their money. 

In an interview with Anne Thompson of IndieWire, Scorsese notes that the white man’s sentiment was something of “We are superior to you. You don’t know what’s good for you, you don’t know how to handle money. We do. And by the way, in the meantime, if you don’t know how to handle money, well, we can help you with that. As long as we get a good, good chunk of it ourselves.”

This superiority manifests itself in more ways than financial. Illness commonly plagued the Osage people. The beginning of the film highlights Mollie’s sister, Minnie (Jillian Dion), who struggles with a mysterious illness. While it is not thoroughly explained what Minnie suffers from, the film acknowledges that she is being cared for by her white husband. Despite his reassurance that Western medicine is being used to treat her ailments, there are questions over how well her husband is looking after her. The superiority of the white man and Western medicine justified his ability to nurse his ill wife, even when it was never confirmed that his efforts were genuine. 

Mollie herself suffers from diabetes, and the subject of Western medicine is a topic of argument between the married couple. In a particularly heated fight, Ernest reveals his own superiority complex as he pushes his wife to accept modern medicine as opposed to the Osage’s traditions of healing. The power dynamic between both couples represents the constant suppression of the Osage people despite their financial dominance. Being painted as inferior and incompetent pushes them into a more vulnerable state to be taken advantage of. 

Perhaps one of the more unexpected elements of the movie is its focus on the love story between Mollie and Ernest. During a press conference, Scorsese explains that Mollie and Ernest’s granddaughter, Margie Burkhart, wanted the marriage to be a focal point of the film. 

“She said we have to remember that Ernest loved Mollie, and Mollie loved Ernest. It’s a love story. So what happened was the script shifted that way and it became gritty.”

The progression of their relationship’s strength and passion makes Ernest’s motivations to murder Mollie’s family all the more unnerving. The scenes of true love and bonding between a husband and wife, for just a few moments at a time, make the audience hopeful for something better to come. This hope, however, continuously gets ripped away by subsequent scenes of more Osage people found mysteriously murdered. 

Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Scorsese weaves breathtaking scenes of real Osage land throughout his film. In a particularly impactful scene during the first few minutes of the film, a burst of oil gushes up into the air as Osage people joyfully dance in the mess. The excitement and thrill of striking “black gold” is symbolic of the potential the Osage nation once had. The hope and light the oil brings the dancing clan is ripped from their hands as quickly as it bubbles to the surface. 

The final scene encapsulates the unsettling contrast between a beautiful culture and gruesome bloodshed, a contrast that is prevalent throughout the film’s entirety. The final moments display a bird’s eye view of an Osage celebration, a reminder of the Osage people’s strength and unity in a time of unthinkable tragedy. 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” serves as a reminder of the devastating exploitation the Osage people and other Indigenous tribes were subject to. It is these once-silenced voices who now have their important stories told and remembered for good. 

Brenna Hiett is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the Fall 2023 quarter. She can be reached at bhiett@uci.edu.