The Osage people, a Native American nation of the Great Plains, were in the 1870s forced from their ancestral lands to a reservation in Oklahoma, presumed to be more or less worthless. It was sold to them for just 70 cents an acre.
But an abundance of oil was discovered there in 1894, and in the following years the few thousand remaining Osage became enormously rich. Under the terms of the purchase, although the land itself could be sold or leased, the mineral rights underneath had been reserved in trust solely for the Osage people. These “headrights” could not be bought, only inherited.
So were created the conditions in which, not content with declaring the Osage to be “incompetent” and ruthlessly exploiting them as their supposed “guardians”, white men began to marry into Osage families – and then murder those members standing in the way to inheriting their wealth. Some of these cases were only brought to trial in 1926.
This horrible story had been almost entirely forgotten until the New Yorker writer David Grann recovered it in his brilliant 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon. Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and their scriptwriter Eric Roth worked on developing the project for several years, with DiCaprio intending to play the pioneer FBI agent Tom White, who saw the case through.
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In time, though, the script was turned right around. The Osage people themselves became the focus and the plot now turns not so much on detection as the intimate betrayal of trust involved in the crimes. The movie that has resulted (using to the full a whopping $200m budget shared between Paramount and Apple) is an absolute masterpiece, Scorsese’s best for years. It’s a film you will want to see on the big screen, too.
Robert De Niro, in his tenth film with Scorsese, plays “King” Bill Hale, the manipulative monster behind most of the crimes but who presents himself as the great benefactor of the Osage people. Always well dressed and ready with a sanctimonious word, Hale has no conscience at all. De Niro, now 80, may be too old to play him but Scorsese, 80 himself, has extracted the actor’s most serious, convincing performance for a long time – so focused in his evil, unyielding to the end, insisting that he’s as “innocent as a new-born baby – even more!”
DiCaprio, in his sixth Scorsese collaboration, is not the good guy now but a brute, Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhart, all jutting jaw and downturned mouth. Arriving in town, newly discharged from the army and none too bright, Ernest is at a loss. “You like women?” his uncle asks. “That’s my weakness!” says Ernest, earnestly. “You like red?” King enquires repugnantly. He likes them all but not as much as he loves money. “I do love that money, sir,” he volunteers.
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Hale helps him become the favoured driver of the recently widowed Osage heiress Molly Kyle (played with great composure and inwardness by Lily Gladstone, previously seen in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women). Molly intuits that Ernest is a “coyote”, hungry for money, but falls for him anyway – and indeed Ernest unexpectedly falls for her too. It doesn’t stop him from giving in to King’s pressure to kill her, however, even when they have a family of their own. And Molly, grievously, continues somehow to trust him, even as she falls desperately ill.
Speaking few words out loud to Ernest, Molly, alone in the film, is given a prayerful inner voice, just once or twice. “Evil surrounds my heart,” she says – and it is her heart that is at the centre of the film.
Speaking at the London Film Festival in October, Scorsese ruled that the last vital Western made was The Wild Bunch (1969) and he had no interest in making a revisionist version. Yet, this is a late, great Western nonetheless, shot in Oklahoma, drawing deeply on the landscape and its people. One hellish scene, in which King, a keen insurance fraudster, fires his own ranch, is pure Terrence Malick – and indeed the production designer is the genius Jack Fisk, who has collaborated with Malick since Badlands (1977). The late Robbie Robertson contributes a stirring soundtrack.
Killers of the Flower Moon comes in at no less than 3 hours 26 minutes, yet is never an endurance test like The Irishman. Perhaps there’s a scene too many of Molly ailing, and a hysterical Brendan Fraser is not the equal of steely John Lithgow as rival attorneys in the courtroom. No matter. This is grand, classic film-making, an American tragedy of the highest order.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is in cinemas from 20 October
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts