There are many ways to tell a story, especially one that really happened, and this fact has lately tugged at Martin Scorsese’s mind. In movies like The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street, he carefully remolds his protagonists’ true stories — or at least, they say they’re true — into a new angle on their tales, subtly repositioning the men at their center (a mob hitman, a Wall Street gangster) to reveal new angles and undermine their self-aggrandizement. The results are revelatory portraits of ego and self-delusion, unpacked by a filmmaker who’s plenty familiar with those traits. How you tell a story determines what it’s about — far more than the facts themselves.
Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese’s newest epic, is based on an exceptionally well-told nonfiction book by the journalist David Grann. The book’s narrative structure is built into the subtitle: “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” Much of the book, indeed, centers on the crime and the newly formed FBI’s investigation, unpacking the origins of the bureau and the men who conducted the investigation along with the perpetrators and the victims. It’s effective storytelling, history coupled with mystery.
But story structure on the page doesn’t always translate effectively to the screen. In interviews, Scorsese has said that he wasn’t happy with his first pass at the screenplay because “I realized I was making a movie about all the white guys,” as he told Time. “Meaning I was taking the approach from the outside in, which concerned me.” After a private screening I attended in New York, he further elaborated, noting that he realized the center of the story he was telling wasn’t the FBI at all: It was the strange love story of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a white man and his Osage wife, who lived together and raised a family while Ernest was actively involved in a slow-burning scheme to defraud Mollie’s family, concocted by his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro). A self-declared “friend to the Osage,” William wants everyone to call him “King.”
Initially, DiCaprio — one of Scorsese’s go-to leading men — was slated to play Tom White, the FBI agent leading the murder investigation; eventually he was recast as Ernest Burkhart, with Jesse Plemons taking over the role. The shift was prompted, Gladstone has said, by a simple fact: whoever the lead actor is playing will be the center of the movie. Recasting DiCaprio puts Ernest and Mollie at the center, and the grief of the Osage nation comes to the foreground.
The scheme to slowly transfer the wealth of the oil-rich Osage over to the white men around them, via a combination of marriage and murder, is the plot that powers Killers of the Flower Moon. It did really happen, in the early 1920s. But in Scorsese’s film, that plot is not really the story the movie is telling. In keeping with his larger body of work, Killers is about how organized crime, and the egos that drive it, make victims of the innocent, or even just the less bright. If The Wolf of Wall Street was about the organized crime-like tactics of high finance, then Killers is about how, when it comes right down to it, our history is rife with gangster behavior. The centuries-long effort in US history to strip indigenous people of their homes, their families, their wealth, and their dignity, often under the guise of caring for them, is just another example.
With its wide-open vistas and slow, droning score (composed by Robbie Robertson, a close friend of Scorsese’s), Killers of the Flower Moon is drawing on a cinematic language developed and perfected in Hollywood’s tellings of how the West was won. That’s significant: Most of our popular conception of the West is borrowed from movies about heroes and cowboys, in which Native Americans have frequently been sidelined or positioned as outsiders. Scorsese evokes that kind of storytelling while flipping it on its head. The first moments of the movie are Osage leaders mourning that their children will “be taught by white people”; the next is the discovery of oil on Osage land and a jubilant dance.
And then, immediately, a 1920s-style film reel starts, black and white, silent, with intertitles, explaining who the Osage are (“the richest people per capita on earth,” the “chosen people of chance”). It’s the kind of reel that curious moviegoers would have seen before a feature presentation at the theater, in which the Osage are turned into figures of curiosity: Can you believe it, American Indians with fancy cars?
Throughout Killers of the Flower Moon, constant battles rage over who gets to tell the story, who gets to narrate what’s happening. Does Mollie get to say what is happening to her and her family, or will Ernest and William’s explanations be accepted? Whose version of events will make it into the obituaries and the history books? And if the answer isn’t the Osage — why?
The result of all this careful questioning is stunning. To say Scorsese has made a great movie is to announce that water is wet, but there’s a kind of unfolding grief to Killers’ tone, a steady feeling of dread and sorrow, that only works in the hands of a master. You aren’t told how to feel so much as you’re made to feel it and then, in the end, be walloped with indignance over what happened to the story of the murders and many stories like them.
Key to all of this was the choice to put Ernest and Mollie’s romance at the center, not only because Gladstone’s elegant seriousness is a serious foil for DiCaprio’s interpretation of Ernest as weak and silly, an easily manipulated man whom Mollie nonetheless loves. You start to understand why she stayed with him, long past when it made any sense. In fact, during the film Ernest and Mollie go to the movies and watch a 1918 film titled The Lady of the Dugout, a silent Western for which the advertising tagline was “a true romance of the real west, the truth and nothing but the truth.”
That film was narrated by a real outlaw, Al Jennings, who tells a story — purportedly a true one, though also a bit of a tall tale — about rescuing a woman whose alcoholic husband is abusing her. Just a tiny bit of foreshadowing for Ernest and Mollie, and for Scorsese too. Who gets to tell the story matters. Who the story is about matters, too.
Killers of the Flower Moon opens in theaters on October 20.