To paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard: A movie must be watched forward, but the best movies beg to be understood backward. Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, is such a movie. What he’s really doing isn’t evident until the film’s very final moments. The last scenes are a rhetorical gesture calculated to knock us flat.
This is not unusual for Scorsese throughout his career — people have argued about the ending of Taxi Driver for longer than I’ve been alive — but something’s been going on with him in the last decade or so. The last few shots of movies like Silence and The Irishman are revelatory filters for the hours of drama that have just transpired. Scorsese has arguably been the greatest living American filmmaker for a long time, but his late work is almost painfully reflective, introspective in a way that invites viewers to look inside themselves, if they’re willing.
For Killers of the Flower Moon, he once again holds his fire till the very end, though there are hints of what he’s doing — questions about who gets to tell the story of other people’s tragedies and whether they should at all — sprinkled throughout the film. It’s not a twist so much as an unfolding, and a bold move from a man who has spent his life telling stories. It is perhaps his boldest ending yet. Couple it with a few other recent films and a whole project emerges. He is a man approaching the end of his life (he’s turning 81 this November), reevaluating it all.
You could reach way back to films like Shutter Island and Wolf of Wall Street, movies about men who have one delusion about themselves and discover, a bit too late, how they really look to the people around them. But this crystallized in Silence (2016), which centers on Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a 17th-century Portuguese priest who has traveled to Japan with a fellow priest. They aim to convert the Japanese and minister to the Christians who’ve been forced underground by a government hostile to European influence, including their religion.
Scorsese spoke often about the impetus for that film (adapted from a 1966 novel by the Japanese Catholic writer Shūsaku Endō), which he tried to make for 25 years before finally succeeding. He’d first been introduced to Endō’s book after being the target of vitriol for 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which Scorsese considered to be an act of devotion while others, most of whom hadn’t seen the film, disagreed. The book addresses faith, doubt, and what it might mean for God to go silent in the face of extreme pain.
There’s a lot to say about Silence (in my review, I wrote that it was “the kind of film that cuts at everyone’s self-perceptions, including my own”). Yet the most lingering, complicating image in the film comes right at the end, when we discover that Father Rodrigues, despite having publicly renounced his faith and lived without it for decades, has been cremated with a crucifix. That scene isn’t in the novel; it’s Scorsese’s addition. Suddenly we’re not sure what exactly to believe about Rodrigues or, indeed, about the nature of faith and apostasy itself. Scorsese, a cradle Catholic who once thought of being a priest, has spoken about his return to faith in his later years, and has always been looking for God in one way or another. It’s a profound question in search of an answer, one he designed because he’s asking the question himself. The availability of divine forgiveness (and retribution) is a recurring theme throughout Scorsese’s movies. Here, though, he is asking the older man’s question: If God is really out there, caring about the actions of humans, then what would God be willing to forgive at the end of a man’s life?
That very theme deepens with The Irishman, which starts out, quite purposefully, as a redux of Goodfellas: a story of mobsters, violent men, men with egos to guard and vendettas to serve and a lot of skeletons stashed in the closet. But about an hour from the end, things flip on their head: Suddenly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hitman for the mob and the antihero of the story, is made to confront an important truth. All his life, he’s told himself that he did what he did to protect and provide for his family, his daughters, his friends. Now, nearing the end of his life, the truth comes into focus. He hurt his family; he betrayed his friend; his favorite daughter won’t even speak to him. At the end of his life, he is alone, wholly alone. The weight of his sins is too much to bear. He can live only through self-delusion.
The final shot of The Irishman is immensely painful; it might be the saddest ending I’ve ever seen. Having just been informed by a visiting priest at his nursing home that it’s just about Christmas, he asks the priest to leave the door open. Through the half-ajar opening, we see the big man, once celebrated by hundreds, now utterly alone with himself. It’s a stunning moment of self-implication for Scorsese, who in a recent GQ profile spoke at length about mortality, guilt, forgiveness, and the feeling of your friends and family slipping away. “I just wanna be as honest with myself as possible,” Scorsese says. “And if I’m honest in the work, maybe I could be honest as a person. Maybe.”
This context is good to keep in mind while watching Killers of the Flower Moon. The film, which reshuffles the elements of David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same title, centers on two characters: Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman who marries Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dissipated veteran under the sway of his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro) and his plot to steal the Osage people’s wealth.
As Grann notes in his book, the Osage murders — which involved dozens, maybe hundreds of people — were a media sensation after they were investigated 100 years ago, but were largely forgotten far too rapidly. Dead Osage people simply weren’t a story to America the way dead white people would have been. In 1932, the still-nascent FBI, which had investigated the case, started working with a radio program called The Lucky Strike Hour to dramatize cases the bureau had worked on, with the full cooperation of J. Edgar Hoover. Among its first episodes was the Osage murders.
In the hands of a 1930s radio show — an early true crime show, really — the story became, in essence, entertainment. Grann explains that fictional scenes were written by one of the FBI agents and shared with the producers of the program. “In one of those scenes, Ramsey shows Ernest Burkhart the gun he plans to use to kill Roan, saying, ‘Look at her, ain’t she a dandy?’” Grann recounts. The goal of the broadcast was, in essence, to convince the American public that the FBI was a great force for good: “The broadcasted radio program concluded, ‘So another story ends and the moral is identical with that set forth in all the others of this series ... [The criminal] was no match for the Federal Agent of Washington in a battle of wits.”
None of this was particularly unusual in the 1930s, when the exploits of high-profile bank robbers and fugitives like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, or John Dillinger, were followed breathlessly across America. Still, there’s an obvious queasiness in turning other people’s incredible tragedy — the exploitation and even murder of your family by men who considered themselves more worthy of their wealth simply because they were white — into entertainment. It’s a difficult ethical wicket, and especially thorny in the case of Scorsese, whose movies have often (though not always) focused on bad men doing bad things, but less often on the people who are collateral damage.
Had the movie ended with its nearly final scene — Mollie confronting Ernest about poisoning her insulin, him unable to confess, and her walking out — it would have been a stunner. But Scorsese tags on what feels, at first, like a hilarious but incongruous epilogue on the set of the radio show. We watch a narrator, vocal performers, and a foley artist re-create the rest of the story in a hokey old-timey way. It’s funny. You have to laugh.
Then Scorsese himself — a man who has done many cameos, in his own films and others’ — steps onto the radio stage. I was at the premiere screening at Cannes, and a hush instantly fell over the room. His lines are simple: He explains that Mollie’s obituary didn’t mention the murders. Then we cut to people of the Osage Nation, in what appears to be a contemporary ceremony, dancing in a circle, shot from overhead.
There’s more than one legitimate way to interpret this choice by Scorsese, which amounts, I think, to essentially breaking the fourth wall. What’s clear is that it’s a choice designed to make you think about everything that’s come before. As one of the film’s Osage language consultants, Christopher Cote, pointed out at a premiere while voicing his conflicted feelings, this is not a film for the Osage (though members of the Osage nation have praised the film and participated in its making and promotion). Furthermore, having DiCaprio, one of the world’s biggest stars, in one of the lead roles means that the center of gravity is continually getting pulled toward him.
Scorsese is no idiot; he knows this. He also knows the fact about Hollywood, which is that he and DiCaprio (and De Niro) are the reason this movie is getting made and heavily promoted. The complexity of making a movie, a work of entertainment, about a tragedy that’s still very much living in the memories of the Burkhart family and the Osage more broadly is complex. Having to balance the Osage perspective with the white characters — even if Gladstone’s performance is clearly the heart and soul of the film — is further messy.
Scorsese’s appearance at the end of Killers of the Flower Moon represents another anchor in his recent self-reflection, prompted by a lifetime of telling stories. He’s upfront in the GQ profile about what matters to him now, in his sixth decade of filmmaking: God, family and friends, and movies. Few filmmakers have done more to promote the work of directors from underrepresented communities than Scorsese, whose World Cinema Project and extensive work as an executive producer is stunning. He cares about the art form and about who gets to tell stories — the major reason for his much-maligned comments about the artistry of the most successful movies in the world.
Showing up at the end of Killers of the Flower Moon to specifically note how the story of the murders and of Mollie’s family was largely ignored is a tacit acknowledgment that he knows this isn’t a perfectly constructed story, either. Here he is, a man whose success comes at least in small part from proximity to the kind of men who murdered, asking for forbearance. For forgiveness, in a sense. An admission that these real events are not really fodder for an award-winning movie with a red-carpet Cannes premiere. None of it ever really has been.
Killers of the Flower Moon, he’s said in interviews, is “a story of complicity, silent complicity in certain cases, sin by omission.” Read that backward over his late career and you start to see what he’s getting at: Where have I been complicit, even silently? Where have I sinned by omission? And in an imperfect world, where is there forgiveness to be sought? That it’s conveyed in masterpieces of cinema, made by a genius, makes it easy to forget the point: These are questions for us to ask, too.
Killers of the Flower Moon is playing in theaters.