The origin of Killers of the Flower Moon is jealousy.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian literary giant whose piercing words exposed the Soviet Union, wrote,
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Director Martin Scorcese is a lifelong Catholic, and to hear him tell it, he’s had quite the winding spiritual journey. His films have always reflected Catholic themes of guilt (Silence, The Irishman), shame (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and the tortured conscience (Shutter Island, Cape Fear), but now, we see the old Italian American complete the journey to becoming godfather of American cinema, and his films are more spiritual than ever.
There is a verse in the bible Scorsese surely knows which says,
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
In an early scene from Killers, Ernest Burkhart says with a chuckle over a bottle of whiskey, “I love money almost as much as I love my wife.” But we’re not laughing when the body count ticks up. As the corruption deepens and immeasurable grief follows, we realize Ernest meant, “I love my wife almost as much as I love money.”
Ernest is in a jail cell at the end of the film when he finds out about the death of his young daughter, Hannah. She might have been four years old. The doctors say she died of whooping cough, but at that point in the film, can they be trusted? Ernest curls up on the floor and weeps. Some people, eager for money, have wandered away and pierced themselves with many griefs. You don’t have to believe in God to believe that. Pierced themselves with many griefs. We see it everywhere all the time. The dividing line in the heart crossed for so many dollars and cents.
However, it’s not just greed. It’s another green-bellied visceral pang of the heart: jealousy. Over what? The white citizens of Osage County cannot stand to see the Osage wealthy and prosperous. If this had been white folks suddenly becoming rich through oil, attempted genocide would not have been the answer. They’re jealous.
The Osage didn’t work for this money. They don’t know how to spend it. They don’t need this much anyway. They’re strange. Savage.
Simply put, for the white citizens of Osage County in the early 1900s, the Osage did not deserve wealth because they were not white.
If it was white people getting rich, pure greed still requires that shady attempts to profit from their gain would undoubtedly have existed, but for the sheriff to be in on it? And the judge? And the doctors? And the undertaker? And lawyers, and mothers, and husbands, and fathers? The entire infrastructure was complicit. Everyone benefitted in their own way, so why not keep the parasitic pathology alive?
One man, Kelsie Morrison, helped along the death of his Osage wife, but because she had Osage children, her wealth was passed to them. He asks his attorney in a private meeting if he adopted the children legally, then took them to Mexico, where they happened to die, then could he inherit his dead Osage wife’s money? The attorney stares blankly and says,
“You know that indicates to me you’re planning to kill your children to inherit the money.”
“Well, only if it’s legal,”
comes the reply. Shockingly, it’s a humorous scene. The darkest level of comedy. It’s comedic because it’s blatant. The audience laughs because it seems so unbelievable, but then is quietly stilled because he’s serious. And this isn’t a fiction. (In fact, Kelsie’s entire back and forth at the end of the film with the prosecuting attorney - played by John Lithgow - was lifted verbatim from a courthouse transcript.)
Scorsese chooses to film it all with the normalcy of a guy checking the mail. It’s straightforward. Not dramatized or glamorized. The way King Bill Hale, played with disturbing chill and faux kindness by Robert De Niro, conducts the business of meticulously eliminating Osage people in the correct order so the head rights make their way to him is frighteningly ordinary.
Scorcese’s decision to frame the story from the inside with Ernest, Mollie, Bill Hale, and the Osage (as opposed to the outside from the law enforcement perspective, as the book is written) creates subtle tension. The knot in our stomach grows every time Ernest gives his wife a shot of insulin mixed with an unknown poison. We feel sick seeing Mollie become sick. Surely, he’ll stop, right? Towards the end, his guilt eats at him. So Ernest gets himself drunk, poisons himself partially with her shot, and then stabs the needle into her bruised thigh to finish the injection. Punishing himself for hurting her, but still unwilling to stop. What kind of evil is this?
Scorsese saves the most beautiful shots of the film for the Osage, especially around their deaths. Their deaths are honored in the deepest way Scorsese knows how - with cinema. He uses compositions steeped in old films from around the world. We hear their names and ages—the people of the Flower Moon who lost their lives in the Reign of Terror.
This reviewer was moved to tears on more than one occasion throughout the film. Because, as strange as it is, Ernest Burkhart loved Mollie, and perhaps more shockingly, she loved him. She stood by him to the end. Though he did not deserve it, she asked,
“Have you told all the truths?”
Lily Gladstone’s performance here makes one’s heart ache. Her eyes say it all. We can tell Mollie knows the answer yet loves this man enough to give him one more chance to make right. To be clean of this guilt. Ernest looks her dead in the face.
But he couldn’t tell it, not to her, not to himself. The sickness of what he did could not be faced.