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With ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ Scorsese Tells the Ultimate Gangster Story

Martin Scorsese’s three-hour Western features a throwback performance from Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio at his best in a film that mirrors aspects of classics like ‘Goodfellas’

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“Can you find the wolves in this picture?” Uneducated Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is reading aloud to himself from a children’s book on the advice of his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro); the older man thinks it might help his nephew acclimatize to the predominantly Indigenous town. It’s not the most subtle of clues as to what Killers of the Flower Moon—based on David Grann’s nonfiction book—will be about: There are real wolves hiding in plain sight in Martin Scorsese’s latest film, and they really aren’t that hard to spot. They’re white.

This isn’t to say that the filmmaker is being too explicit or lazy in his storytelling. Instead, getting straight to the point highlights just how clueless, or in denial, Ernest is. Arriving in Oklahoma with the simple hope of getting a job, Burkhart doesn’t seem that flummoxed by the unique dynamic of the town, where rich Native Americans employ white, poorer men. The oil found in the land that the Osage Nation was arbitrarily given by white men changed the game, and Hale—who goes by the modest nickname “King”—became an ally and is beloved by his community. For seemingly purely altruistic reasons, he offers Ernest a job as a taxi driver; but already King’s demeanor hints at what he is really after, for those who can notice it.

De Niro hasn’t given such a complex, funny, and deeply disturbing performance in a long while. His King talks to Ernest as if to a son, telling him in more or less subtle terms how things are to be done in these parts. He’s also a master at saying one thing to mean another, making for moments when DiCaprio gets to be at his best: confused, but too insecure to say so, as vulnerable as in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, a performance that marked a real return to form. King referring to “pure blood” Native people doesn’t mean much to Ernest, but it also takes him by surprise. In his language, King walks a fine, confusing line between loving the Osages and describing them as obstacles toward his goal of mass estate ownership. Here’s a man at peace with his split personality because perhaps, to him, it isn’t split at all. Everything is a justifiable means to an end, whether those means consist of learning the Osage language and grieving their losses, or murdering members of the community. Playing this psychopathic character completely straight, De Niro baffles the audience, too. The effect is one of whiplash and cognitive dissonance while Scorsese takes his time, over the first hour, to slowly but surely let the horror creep onto the frame. Almost without knowing it, King’s genocidal master plan has revealed itself, seeping into the narrative like poison.

For the banality of evil (as De Niro rightly referred to it at the film’s Cannes press conference) to take hold, however, you don’t just need men like King. Ernest, as his name announces, is always enthusiastic to do as he’s told without thinking too much. Like a leaf in the wind, this useful idiot lets himself be pushed around easily. He drives for an Osage woman, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), on King’s suggestion and falls in love, marries, and takes care of her, but also participates in the slow extermination of her entire family for his uncle’s sake. It is the bold choice of an experienced filmmaker (some would say in his “late” era) to have at the center of his film a man with no center, and to offer the audience no direct access to his thoughts. Where Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas shared his reflections on his life as a gangster with some level of insight, Ernest gives us nothing but his contradictory behavior, which we experience in the present tense. Ernest is a man torn but who doesn’t know it, whose only excuse might be that he has been brainwashed from the start by King’s (and America’s) white capitalistic ideology, which Scorsese highlights as he did in his gangster pictures. Establishing the story of the Osages in the film’s first few sequences, the filmmaker relies on his beloved combination of slow-motion and bluesy guitar when oil bursts out of the ground and the oppressed tribe dances under the unexpected black gold rain. As is always the case with Scorsese’s coolest sequences, the swagger of this stylized moment is not to be taken at face value, but instead speaks to the appeal of our vices. Sharon Stone shooting a glance at De Niro and walking off in Casino was the beginning of his downfall, but in Flower Moon’s context of white supremacy, this technique takes on new depth: While it is exciting to see the Osages win over their colonizers, it is also dispiriting that they should even have to play into their capitalist game to survive.

Ernest’s inability to hold on to any sense of morality feels all the more disturbing because Scorsese doesn’t use his protagonist’s detachment as an excuse to hide the truth from the audience. As members of the Osage community continue to die mysteriously, the Indigenous families are quick to accuse the whites, in scenes that Scorsese lets run long in order to better hear these impassioned and perfectly logical calls for justice and transparency. Ernest and King are part of these recurring meetings, saying all the right words. The simplicity of these scenes, with the perpetrators sitting by the victims, listening to them, and never worried that they’ll be found out, sometimes feels too absurd—but herein lies their immediate power. The wolves are already in the barn.

Living in this kind of contradiction is typical of many of Scorsese’s characters—gangsters hide the truth of what they do from their wives and children, and the loyalty that’s fundamental to the proper running of a crime family wouldn’t be so meaningful if betrayal and backstabbing weren’t expected and commonplace. This level of dissonance often makes for a dark and destabilizing sense of humor, but while the “how am I funny?” scene in Goodfellas is chilling, Scorsese reaches new levels of morbidity when he has Indigenous people as the victims of this duplicity and these sudden reversals. The comedy comes from the impunity and ineptitude of the white people, in particular King’s. As the bodies and the mistakes pile up, his falsely empathetic explanations for why killing the Osages is necessary and inevitable (“they are a sick people”) become utterly ridiculous and are in complete contrast to the horrors we are witnessing. Ernest only grows more confused as King gets bolder in his wheeling and dealing—“look at me like this makes sense,” he tells a baffled Ernest. Henry Hill’s paranoia near the end of Goodfellas was at once based on fact and on substances; here, Ernest’s panic in a late crowd scene as he rushes to King for help has a similar energy of impending doom, but is also hilarious and cathartic. Henry Hill was despicable, yet Ernest manages to be worse.

Flower Moon is Scorsese’s take on the biggest gangsters of all—the OG hoodlums who made America. While his Italo American mafiosi were ruled by an anti-establishment stance and a sense of family values, these white men here are guided by racism and colonialism—and greed, of course, continues to be part of the story. Where a gangster could be bought with the promise of protection, belonging, and money, here every white man will kill an Indigenous person for a reasonable price, confident that the risks are small since the victims aren’t really considered human. The horror goes even deeper, however. The Osages are meant to be in charge of their community, unlike in the rest of the country—and yet, King can still have his way. Scorsese frames these murderous people as a secret society pulling the strings, making them representatives of the insidiousness of white supremacy. Even where it seems to have no soil on which to grow, it still finds its way, and racism seems to be just an old, barely conscious reflex for Ernest and all the other men hired to kill Mollie’s relatives, much more so than killing was a habit for Scorsese’s gangsters. In Flower Moon, every white man is as psychopathic as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas.

In Ernest’s polarized life, Mollie occupies an impossible spot. Neither a naive victim blinded by love nor someone who saw it all coming, she holds on to the hope that her life isn’t a lie, even as she seeks the truth. Gladstone, who made a strong impression in Certain Women but allegedly almost gave up acting before Scorsese called her, offers a measured performance and calm presence that help make this ambiguous character feel grounded and credible, perhaps the most human of the film. Mollie doesn’t get to switch sides at will—her life brings them together and she seems to have accepted that, without any resentment. And if she does live in denial, hers isn’t comparable to that of the wives of mafiosi. How could she accept that the person responsible for all of her pain is sleeping beside her, helping her with her illness, and taking care of their children? How could she contemplate that he may want to kill her one day? In her untenable position, Mollie is the future that hasn’t come yet, and perhaps may never come, depending on how optimistic you are about the future of racial equality and justice.

It therefore makes sense that Scorsese steps out of time and space for the film’s penultimate sequence. On a ’50s-style stage, a radio show about what happened after the then-nascent FBI finally intervened is being recorded. The tone is odd, between irony and pity, an appropriate climax for what has been an uncanny, amusing, but disturbing film. Of course, there is no real conclusion—in the years since the Osage affair, the plight of Indigenous people has barely been addressed. Then something both devastating and curious occurs: the filmmaker himself steps onto the stage and narrates the rest of the story. Perhaps Scorsese felt compelled to show how he understood that the oppression of Native people goes far beyond his film, and could hardly be captured in three hours and 26 minutes. Yet this extended appearance is also tinged with melancholy and a general gasp was heard in Cannes’ Debussy theater: Is the director anticipating his own ending? Or perhaps this is a demonstration of love for the art form he’s had the chance to work with, and a way to express his gratitude for all the films that have led him to make this wildly ambitious and significant one. Rather than closing the film on himself, however, Scorsese then brings it all back to the present and to Indigenous people, with some contemporary images of chants and celebrations. As he declared in a recent interview, “the whole world has opened up to me, but it’s too late.” Over more than 50 years, a man who started making films about the idiosyncratic life on his tiny New York City block expanded his vision out to the wider world, all the while maintaining—and developing—his unique, generous, and humorous perspective. He’s discovered other cultures and deeper issues, worked with loyal friends again and again, and seen the world change a lot and not enough. That he still remains curious and bold enough to explore new ideas and what most filmmakers aren’t willing to dig into is a testament to both his lively spirit, but also to what cinema and art can give us if we let them: a heart that keeps growing.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.