As I run the traditional spooky gauntlet of Halloween movies this time of year, I’m reminded how often ghost movies explain away the paranormal activity just by revealing that the haunted house is built on an old Native American burial ground. It’s an explanation requiring no further explanation, for American audiences know deep down that that’s a karmic blank check for revenge: our country was built on a Native American burial ground, and we’ve been haunted by it ever since.
Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” has the trappings of a Western but the bone marrow despair of proper horror. Adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, Scorsese reconfigures a story initially structured as a whodunnit into a slasher film in broad daylight, one where the killers don’t even bother with masks.
The film follows the plight of the Osage people, who were booted from Missouri to barren Oklahoma only to discover oil under their reservation. They enter the Jazz Age living in the richest per capita town in America, wearing fancy new digs and driving fancy new cars down the muddied streets of rural Oklahoma. Those cars are now driven by white chauffeurs, and those chauffeurs are in turn driven by a violent need to seize back control of the wheel.
The center of this white conspiracy against the Osage is William Hale (played by Robert De Niro), a local cattle baron who demurely refers to himself as “King.” Hale paints himself a friend of the Osage, speaking their language and assisting them when he can, and the Osage themselves regard him as such. King Hale isn’t revealed as the ringleader until the third act of Grann’s book, but here Hale’s charity and savagery walk abreast. He’ll kill a native for the insurance money, then sit down and have supper with the man’s family.
Scorsese frames this less as hypocrisy than cognitive dissonance. One senses that Hale really does consider himself a friend to this people, as his voice genuinely wells when he speaks of them in the abstract. His murders are just business — it’s not his fault the natives are more profitable to exploit than oil.
This discrepancy is taken to the limits with Hale’s nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonard DiCaprio), whom Hale pressures to woo Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a full-blooded Osage with an extensive fortune. Burkhart is privy to his uncle’s wider machinations, and indeed the inevitable fate for Kyle. He’s participated in too many of these crimes to pretend to be an innocent.
But if the courtship is genuinely awkward, it’s also awkwardly genuine. Kyle is a Catholic, and when he accompanies her to Mass, she chuckles at how he’s always a half step behind the rest. This is the dance of the lapsed, which is as familiar and vital to Catholic courtship as the hops and struts of those Birds of Paradise in the Attenborough nature documentaries.
Kyle and Burkhart like each other, and when they marry it’s with a smile on their faces. But like Hale he doesn’t stop in his mission. Instead, he compartmentalizes, arranging assassinations then climbing into bed with his wife.
Burkhart genuinely believes he can exist in both worlds, one foot in oppression and the other in love. His uncle doesn’t split these worlds, the same leg straddling both. In conversation he paints a fatalistic picture to his nephew. To him the Osage are doomed regardless, that despite their modern garb and gadget they are a people who won’t make it into the new America. And if they’re riding off into the sunset, it would be a sin to just let all their wealth go to waste, no? “This is no longer the age of miracles,” he tells Burkhart, abandoning his moral duty to the incoming wave of progress.
Forget about heart disease; passivity is the true silent killer. Burkhart is a stupid and weak-willed man, bossed around by his uncle and then by the wife he’s supposed to be trying to kill. You see the flickers of conscience within him, like a fish darting around an empty bowl. But he’s so convinced of his own lack of will that he effectively has none. After all, not making a decision is still making a decision. Kyle isn’t wholly innocent in this. She’s clearly the wiser of the two, but is powerless to stop a plot she sees is in motion. Theirs is a love story, but it is also a slow-motion suicide. Couldn’t the same be said of Romeo and Juliet?
We’re all complicit. At the beginning we are given a montage of Osage dead, each shot of a corpse capped by the narrator listing the cause of death and saying, “no investigation.” The police are in the pocket of Hale, but society at large is happy to believe that no investigation means no crime. How many times have we thrown our hands up at our politicians, or ignored the manufacturing method of the very laptop we type on now? It’s far easier to pretend we have no say in the matter, no choice but to press onward through the path of least resistance.
But if this is no longer the age of miracles, no one informed the Osage. It is they who hire outside investigators, they who travel to Washington, D.C., and demand to Calvin Coolidge’s face that they need help, which in turn finally spurs the FBI to investigate.
If the entrenched white class believes that God no longer intervenes, the Osage keep the faith and demand an answer. They too believe in one God, called Wah’Kon-Tah, and their naming rituals are performed by a shaman who also wears a cross. They are not the ones a half step behind at Mass.
Spoilers follow, though the story could really end nowhere else. When the FBI start making arrests and “Ernest Goes to Jail,” (though in a manner highly different from that 1990 movie) he’s eventually brought to confess his litany of crimes to Kyle.
The scene offers a glimmer of hope that, through some miracle, she’s willing to forgive him. But when his eyes avert and he denies poisoning her insulin, she leaves at once and never looks back. The only sin that can’t be forgiven is the one you don’t confess, and Burkhart damns himself by denying his own responsibility one last time.