In his novel Tremor, Teju Cole writes: “when a man’s existential satisfaction depends on not knowing something he very much will find a way to not know it.” Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a three-and-a-half-hour meditation on one man’s attempt to maintain such “existential satisfaction” through self-deception. As such, it is not only seeks to be an Oscar-worthy work of historical fiction, but also a window into the interior psychology of the settler mind. While Indigenous scholars have praised the film for its attempts to include historically accurate representations of Osage culture, and for making Indigenous characters more central to the film than they are in the book, it has still come under criticism for failing to truly center the Indigenous experience (see here, here, and here). This is a necessary result of the film’s focus on the settler mindset.
If Indigenous people could as easily command the kinds of resources Hollywood devotes to the stories of white settlers there would be no need to complain about this film. It is precisely because certain kinds of stories are more likely to be told than others that Scorsese’s film has come under such close scrutiny. But I’d like to shift the focus here from the other kinds of stories that could have been told, to how the film even fails to give us a convincing portrayal of the settlers — whose voices are so central to the film. The self-deceptions of the settlers make for some good drama but are ultimately incomprehensible to the viewer. This is especially true in what should have been the film’s climactic third act. I think centering Indigenous voices could have saved the film from itself.
The problem is that willful ignorance cannot be portrayed as a purely psychological phenomenon. The inner life of a performer on the big screen is only made meaningful by the script’s ability to build a convincing world within which that inner life plays out. Settler colonialism is possible because of the existence of institutional racism, a culture of misogyny, and the political legal structures of settler colonialism. To be fair to Scorsese, and to this film, he and the co-author of the screenplay, Eric Roth, understand all of this, and the film does attempt to show all of these things. Unfortunately, they largely do so by consolidating all of these elements into a single character: William Hale, the mastermind of the entire plot to marry and kill members of the Osage Nation to steal their land. He is also the uncle of Ernest Burkhart, the star of the film, portrayed as a Hale’s easily manipulated dupe.
While it is true that Hale was the mastermind of the string of murders depicted in the film, and the one whose capture helped launch the FBI, as depicted in the book, the truth is that he was just one of many such settlers. The murders went on for decades and there were many who were never caught. Hale and Ernest were part of what the book’s author, David Grann calls a wider “culture of complicity” that extended far beyond their family. I think we misunderstand this culture of complicity as we treat it purely as a historical phenomenon. It is a fundamental feature of the settler culture, and one which continues to this day. This can be seen most clearly in the ongoing plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) currently has 4,200 unsolved cases that the federal government knows of, and many more that they don’t.
The scenes between Hale and Ernest are some of the best in the film, as one would expect from two great actors (Robert De Niro as Hale, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest) under the eye of an experienced director. Hale is a Svengali-like villain to manipulates and encourages his nephew to commit heinous crimes for profit. His preferred method of doing so is by speaking of the Osage as a “vanishing race” (though he doesn’t use that term), doomed to disappear anyway. If they are already doomed, he hints, there is nothing wrong with helping them along. (Note: the Osage Nation didn’t vanish, they survived and are thriving.) But outside of these speeches, he appears as the kindly uncle, philanthropist, and “friend” of the Osage the real life Hale tried to pass himself off as. This makes it difficult for his character to fully stand in for the wider culture of complicity. This context is reduced to a conspiracy involving the Masons and various closely connected members of the social elite who appear together in order to convince Ernest to change his testimony (though he later recants).
Ernest’s wavering over his decision to testify takes up a good portion of the last third of the film, and is probably the weakest part of the story. Part of this is because this section focuses on the procedural investigation that was at the heart of the book, but which largely retreads ground that’s already been covered in the story. But a big part of it comes from the fact that DiCaprio has little to work with in the script. All he can do is pull down the corners of his mouth in a grimace, like a Russian oligarch. Scorsese needs the audience feel sympathy for the love Ernest holds for his wife Mollie and his children, even though the story shows us a man who only seems upset at having been caught. It is that contradiction, and not the length of the film, that makes it feel so long.
Nor does Lily Gladstone, who plays Ernest’s wife Mollie Kyle, have an easier job. For this relationship to work on screen, we must believe Ernest’s love for Mollie, even as he is killing her family members and drugging her. And we must believe that Mollie continues to love Ernest even though she saw him for what he was even before they got married. True, it does work for part of the story, and I think it is those scenes that account for much of the praise this film has received, but it is ultimately unsustainable, and much of the harshest criticisms point to those failures. For instance, as Shane Danielsen says:
“For the drama to work, therefore, Mollie has to not only un-learn something she knew, something that she understood instantly and almost instinctively, but also be a thundering idiot in the face of unfolding events. For almost four hours.”
Psychologically, we can accept that people deceive themselves in this way, but it is another thing to try to portray such deception in a convincing way for the entire course of a film. Eventually the audience’s credulence simply wears out.
In Hegel’s discussion of the relationship of a lord to his bondsman he argues that the lord needs the recognition of the bondsman, but this can never be fully granted, because it is subverted by the unequal nature of the relationship. The bondsman never has the full capacity to grant recognition because it is only granted under duress. So too, Ernest can never get the affirmation he needs from Mollie’s love, especially after she has come to fear him. This is truly tragic and one wants the film to live up to this grand scale of this tragedy, but it cannot. That’s because the film reproduces the submersion of Mollie’s own desire for recognition, and by extension that of the entire Osage Nation, to that of Ernest and the white settlers.
Even if her character starts off strong, for much of the second half of the film Mollie is just victim, rather than the central character she might have been. Even when she bravely goes to Washington to meet the president, she is portrayed as sickly victim. This scene is perhaps one of the weakest in the film, because Mollie has to both be a brave fighter who faces up to the system, and a weak victim who is dying from the poison her husband is mixing in her insulin injections. It felt rushed and unconvincing. Mary Kathryn Nagle, a Cherokee “lawyer, playwright and screenwriter,” made this point as well, saying: “I would like to have seen more of Molly’s journey instead of just reacting to the tragedy of it all. There’s a lot of things she was doing off camera that could have been on camera.”
All of which is to say that even by its own terms Scorsese’s film is unable to convincingly portray the film’s central relationship. And that failure is due, in turn, to its inability to adequately portray the culture of complicity which existed at that time, and which still exits today. If Scorsese’s screenplay had done more to center Osage voices, as Indigenous critics have demanded, he might have actually been able to solve this problem. I believe it is the Osage experience that is most capable of showing the inner workings of settler culture, workings which are blind to the settlers themselves. Through this Indigenous perspective the film might have been able to fully reveal the violence caused by the deceptions white settlers tell themselves without simply reproducing that violence for the viewer.