In Martin Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, a man asks another man to ask another man to kill another man. This sounds like the beginning of a joke, and the degree of delegation verges on the comic. The last man is killed, so the rest of the story is not funny. But then why are the first and second men screaming at each other in a farcical quarrel about back and front? Because the dead man was thought to have attempted suicide and the plan was to make it look as if he had succeeded. The third man either didn’t understand this or didn’t care about his instructions and shot the victim in the back of the head.
All this seems very crude, different from the mafia worlds of the American East Coast, where euphemisms are easily understood, and a phrase like ‘painting houses’ means contract killing, as it does in Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019). Though the obvious does occasionally have to be explained. As Michael Corleone says in The Godfather Part II, ‘if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.’ It’s an accident, of course, that another Corleone is played by Robert De Niro, the first of the ludicrously quarrelling men in Killers of the Flower Moon. There is one principle that underlies all these cases. Killing human beings is part of ordinary business practice. Problems may arise only in the way we do it.
Where are we when the mismanaged murder occurs? We are in Fairfax, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s. A newsreel has told us why we are here. This territory belongs to the Osage, a tribe of Indigenous Americans, and they have discovered oil, also known as ‘black gold’. A rubric claims they are ‘the chosen people of chance’. Some of them are very rich, a fact registered by the number of fancy cars they have. Others are worried that progress will make them less Indian, more white. This isn’t quite what happens, and we should note, at this point, that three out of the four men mentioned above are Caucasian and the fourth is a Native American.
The film’s storyline begins when the second of the quarrelling men, Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, arrives in town. He is an army veteran and has come to work with his uncle, William Hale (De Niro). His first job is as a taxi driver. It comes as a real shock when we see and hear him blandly giving instructions for murder as if he was telling someone where to put the furniture. We knew he was grumpy from the first shot of him, but he has softened since then and married a local woman, Mollie, hauntingly played by Lily Gladstone. Their romance seems to be at the centre of the tale, and it is. As well as much else.
DiCaprio and De Niro carry the film through their impersonations of what they are not, their acting of an act, so to speak: the nice, if rough-edged guy, and the genial businessman, the toast of the town. When they first meet up, Hale explains to his nephew how wonderful the locals are and how much he adores them. This isn’t exactly untrue. It’s just that he will like them better when they are dead and no longer have any rights to the oil. Not only are there murders of Native Americans in this town, but many of the locals are dying of a mysterious disease, possibly diabetes, possibly something else. Hale’s involvement in these matters isn’t apparent from the start, and we may not be surprised at his generously funding an investigation into a couple of murders. In fact, his geniality never stops, whatever the situation. To the very end he is smiling and hopeful – except when he quarrels with Burkhart, and when he needs to sound solemn and serious. He does this very well too, and never forgets to add a few religious platitudes.
Burkhart’s development in the film is different, a tour de force of acting and writing. The clearer it becomes that he is his uncle’s pawn, the more human he seems – or the more transparent his failed longing to be human appears. Much of this longing is associated with Mollie, but there is also his vulnerability, and his helplessness when the FBI comes to call. All he can do is grin and laugh and feel embarrassed. How about feeling guilty? Not a trace of it. This is why we can’t like him, even if we can feel sorry for him.
Mollie has been ill, and he has been injecting her with what was supposed to be insulin. Was it? Maybe insulin and something else. Burkhart believes the story he has been told: that she won’t die of it, whatever it is. She doesn’t, but she doesn’t believe in his feeble innocence either. Here, his naivety seems culpable, but we don’t doubt his compromised love for her. As his uncle pretends, he thinks the oil-owners don’t have to perish straight away.
Meanwhile more murders have occurred, including those of two of Mollie’s sisters, while her mother and another sister had died earlier of the mysterious disease. And those who investigate the crimes get into trouble too, including explosive, violent deaths. The title of the film begins to sound like a metaphor where the moon takes the blame for everyone else. Unless of course it is the moon that is being killed. This is what David Grann, in the book on which the film is based, says about an old Western tradition:
In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma … In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants … creep over the tinier blooms, stealing their light and water … This is why the Osage Indians refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.
In the film we are looking at another, unrepeatable form of May, at what Mollie, in the book, thinks of as ‘the darkness that threatened to destroy not only her family but her tribe’.
The film has a wonderful scene which brings back something of the comic focus. Hale is trying to collect the life insurance payout on a local he has himself ordered to be killed. Not immediately, of course. He could wait, and has. He is outraged to learn that he can’t cash in the insurance policy because his application hasn’t been approved by the appropriate authority, now located in Denver. His outrage has more to do with the reason given than his lack of success, and Scorsese has sketched one of the film’s major themes: the end of life in a closed community that is of no interest to the federal government. Another is the beginning of the reign of institutions like the FBI – something that is hinted at here, and thoroughly explored in Grann’s book. Scorsese and his actors float a faint nostalgia for the good old bad days, when some people could get away with anything. The mood ought to be overwhelmed by the horrors created through this indulged independence, but is it?
It’s too late in the day, and too late in the genre, for a gangster movie to be anything other than ironic in relation to morality. But then Killers of the Flower Moon is not only a gangster movie, it is also an attempt to record historical, interracial harm. The combination is not all that good for the movie itself – it feels more like a short TV series than a longish film – but it is perfect for moviegoers who feel at home both within genre and outside it, eager to be distressed and entertained at the same time.
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