by Charles Gerian

“You know what, you got nice color skin. What color would you say that is?”

“My color.”

A sobering story of love, murder, culture, and the darker side of manifest destiny come together in a film that will go down in history as one of the most culturally important works of art ever made.

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON was released Friday, October 20, and the Blackwell Journal-Tribune got to attend a special screening on Wednesday afternoon October 18 at the Poncan Theatre hosted by the Renfro Family Foundation, Northern Oklahoma College, and the Northern Oklahoma College Foundation.

The 3-hour drama about the Osage Nation murders, adapted from David Grann’s nonfiction tome, saw its’ journey to the big screen begin all the way back in 2016. Several delays and a worldwide pandemic later, the picture began shooting in 2021 with backing from Paramount and Apple, the latter of which using this film to position themselves as a major theatrical player, with their second endeavor, Ridley Scott’s NAPOLEON (co-funded by Sony) to release later this winter.

Filming took place in Osage County and Washington County, specifically in Pawhuska, Fairfax and Bartlesville and took the region by storm. Months ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing two Blackwell locals- Jarad Looper and Jason Murray- who were cast in the movie.

To say that FLOWER MOON was the biggest thing to happen in Oklahoma (including a whirlwind year of Disney’s Reservation Dogs and Paramount’s Tulsa King) was an understatement.

And the years’ worth of hype and feverish anticipation to see this true-crime odyssey reach the screen and shed light on not only a dark chapter in our nation and state’s history, but to see the Osage people and Indigenous culture as a whole represented in such a massive way…

…it was all worth it.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON tells the story of the simple but charming World War I veteran Earnest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) who marries into Osage oil money by his wife Mollie (Lilly Gladstone) and finds himself at the center of a nefarious scheme by his uncle William Hale (Robert DeNiro) to effectively kill Mollie’s family in order to receive their fortune.

Eventually, the mounting bodies and cries of the Osage people catch the attention of Washington D.C. who sends a fledgling Bureau of Investigation (soon to be Hoover’s FBI) to Oklahoma to uncover a horrific conspiracy.

To attempt to summarize this 3-and-a-half-hour sprawl of a film would do it a disservice, so I will try to keep plot details to a minimum.

Scorcese works here off a script written by himself and Eric Roth, the latter of which is no stranger to making masterpieces out of something that, in less experienced hands, would be completely unwieldy, specifically his works like 2021’s DUNE, 2008’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, and 1994’s FORREST GUMP.

FLOWER MOON is lensed by Rodrigo Prieto who, this past summer, was the cinematographer for the excellent BARBIE. Talk about a winning year. Prieto’s eye does wonders here for Scorsese’s picture, capturing the rich beauty of nature in contrast to the film’s ugly violence.

Stand-out scenes include the oil dance at the beginning of the film, a jaw-dropping scene which is as stunning as it is foreboding as well as a scene of Lilly Gladstone’s Mollie praying in the woods against the setting sun and, later, a truly unnerving scene of the Hale estate burning.

Prieto’s work is aided of course by the set design of Adam Willis and the costuming of Jacqueline West, herself a 4-time Oscar nom who brought worlds both foreign (DUNE, THE SEVENTH SON) and familiar (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) to life. Everything on screen feels and looks as authentic as if Scorsese had somehow built a time machine and went back to capture this all in real-time.

The film’s triumphant score, which does as much heavy lifting as every other piece to this immaculate puzzle, is courtesy of Robbie Robertson, a long-time Scorsese collaborator.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON obviously plays to Scorse’s strengths of captivating yarns revolving around crime and those that both commit and are impacted by it, but the film surprisingly plays to a genre which he has worked with sparingly before to mesmerizing effect: horror.

FLOWER MOON is as much a horror film as it is a historical drama, reminiscent of his works such as BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, CAPE FEAR, and most recently SHUTTER ISLAND.

There is a sickening depravity in the violence and gore here, mostly because of course it is based on tragically true events, but DeNiro’s (and others’) treatment of the Native Americans like they are “sickly” objects of money rather than real people is enough to make your skin crawl, a perfect example being a stomach-churning scene where two elderly people are casually talking about half-Native children.

The horror angle is played up most especially with the casual monstrosity of the town’s doctors, who encourage and aide DeNiro’s William Hale is poisioning Mollie.

All of these important ingredients- cinematography, the score, the writing- are nothing of course without the film’s cast.

DiCaprio plays Earnest much as a crossbreed between his affable Rick Dalton in 2019’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and DJANGO UNCHAINED’s villainous Calvin Candy…but the audience is left to read into how much villainy is there versus stupidity. DiCaprio’s gullibility and charm make you believe that his love for Mollie is real, but his actions and his obedience to his Uncle Hale say otherwise.

It is a shockingly sympathetic portrayal that hasn’t been sitting right with quite a few critics, and I am undecided on how exactly it makes me feel, personally. But that, obviously, was the point.

Inversely, DeNiro’s Hale is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is one of his worst roles to date, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. DeNiro has played crooks and killers before, but Hale is an entirely different beast altogether.

The heart of the film, as Scorsese’ himself has said, is Gladstone’s Mollie.

A truly star-making and likely Oscar-winning turn by Gladstone, every word and facial nuance she delivers is knocked out of the park. You hang on her every line, and you search her eyes for some understanding as to what she believes- is Earnest protecting her or killing her?

Her character is, truly, one of the most tragic I’ve ever seen. One particularly heartbreaking scene after one of her sisters’ is killed is enough to bring you to your knees.

Scorsese worked with tribal leaders to ensure the film’s authenticity and accuracy to not only honor the Osage but to tell this grizzly story, warts and all.

The film’s ending, in and of itself, is superbly done in a way that, shockingly, shines a meta-light on the entire film and the pros and cons of our cultural obsession with true crime, observing it as entertainment and sometimes not understanding- or choosing not to acknowledge- the cultural and generational trauma that comes with it.

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is a tremendous film that needs to be seen. It is playing this weekend at The Hub in Tonkawa and the Cowley Cinema 8 in Ark City / Winfield.