A white man’s greed, stupidity, and mindless cruelty — what makes Scorsese’s latest film so different?

Author Avatar
Category Culture, Lifestyle, Town
Date November 14 2023
Reading Time 4 min.

A white man’s greed, stupidity, and mindless cruelty — what makes Scorsese’s latest film so different?

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Audiences greeted the film with a 9-minute standing ovation, while director Francis Ford Coppola later called it “out of this world,” adding that Scorsese is “the greatest director alive”.

However, since the movie has been released almost universally, there has been a growing number of critical reactions towards the film. Many viewers are dissatisfied with the length of the movie (which is just under four hours long), while others dislike the acting and predictability of characters’ actions. Interestingly, some critics emphasise the lack of development in characters who almost never feel any remorse and do not learn from their mistakes. So the question arises: is Scorsese losing his grip, or has the director decided to break away from the character types that his fans have become so used to over the past 50 years? Is his intention to show something completely new by using racial conflicts of the early 20th century as the background?

To answer this question one needs to analyse the plot and the real-life events on which the film is drawing upon. Inspired by David Grann’s popular science book Killers of the Flower Moon. Oil. Money. Blood, the movie describes several brutal murders of the Osage Indian tribe members that took place in Osage County, Oklahoma in the early 1920s.

Decades before the events, the Osage became the richest people in the United States when oil was discovered in their reservation. “Whites” from all over the country started moving to Osage to gain access to the dream-like wealth of the Indians at any cost. While many fell in favour with the tribe leaders through negotiations, some opportunists began marrying the heiresses of local lands en masse, with the plan to murder them and their relatives later. Discriminatory laws against Indians prevented them from managing their own money and made them resort to the help of “competent” white men,  with such marriages often encouraged by tribe members.

After the end of World War I, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in Osage to work for his uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), who is largely in charge of all local public affairs and is often referred to as the “King”. The uncle mentions the riches of the Redskins and advises Ernest to take a closer look at local women. Ernest has an affair with Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and they arrange a half-Catholic, half-Indian wedding. Upon Hale’s instruction, Ernest, his brother and other men married to Indian women begin to get rid of Molly’s family members. Ernest tries to poison Molly, who has diabetes, by adding poison to her prescribed insulin. Molly’s attempts to find her family’s killers fail thanks to Hale’s shrewdness, as he masterfully manipulates local Indians, corrupted white elites and his nephew in the best tradition of Scorsese’s cold-blooded villains. He gets away with everything until the CIA takes over, finally sending all those responsible for Indians’ murders behind bars.

With its uncustomary ‘happy ending’ where good old American justice seems to triumph and with for many other reasons Killers of the Flower Moon differs from the usual Scorsese picture, and that might have caused mixed reactions to it.

The first thing one notices while watching it is the unusual behaviour of the protagonist — Ernest Burkhart. Unlike Scorsese’s most famous movie heroes, who have our sympathy thanks to their intelligence, cunning and a sense of criminal honour, DiCaprio’s character amazes with his limitless stupidity and greed. He obeys his uncle even when the latter orders him to kill his wife whom he presumably loves. Despite the fact that, according to critics, DiCaprio is the “weakest” among the three leads, it is obvious that he plays a character unusual for his own acting history. He manages to make us lose all our sympathy for his character, leaving us perplexed at how skilfully he portrays a shallow and empty man.

De Niro plays the role of a typical Scorsese criminal — he is obsessed with money and is trying to get it by any means. However, he usually resorts to ordering others to get it for him. His main tool is his stupid nephew, and the main mistake is trusting him. Ernest’s stupidity and carelessness leads to the CIA taking their trail, but even then Hale continues to manipulate Ernest while trying to shed responsibility.

As usual, De Niro’s acting is interesting to watch, but it doesn’t impress due to our high expectations from the actor and the lack of character’s growth. Neither De Niro’s nor DiCaprio’s characters develop in their villainy. Their behaviour doesn’t change after numerous murders or during the trial, which makes one wonder about Scorsese’s motivation for focusing on these historical figures.

Lily Gladstone’s acting is something completely different, though. A relatively unknown actress without experience in films of this scale, Gladstone evokes a storm of emotions, and her lines that sound almost existential reach our hearts and remain there for a long time after watching the movie. A Native American, Gladstone powerfully conveys the pain of her people, their history and culture. With the most psychologically interesting character in the movie being a woman, it also makes this film stand out from Scorsese’s canon.

The atmosphere of 1920s America also deserves special attention as Scorsese was able to convey its inherent brutality. Scorsese’s films often explore the realities of the criminal underworld, but he had not previously attempted to examine the lives of America’s marginalised communities with no crime connection. While Hollywood films dealing with the consequences of white colonialism are no longer news, it is Sourcese’s ability to show human flaws in their true nature that are different. It is through the impunity, greed and cruelty of Ernest and his uncle that Scorsese reveals the underbelly of American racism and the hopelessness of its victims.

To sum it up, Killers of the Flower Moon is different from Scorsese’s other films because the director opens our eyes to a world that is new even to the director himself. He reveals the sufferings of a woman and an entire tribe, and does so by using a character for whom the viewer has no respect or sympathy. By moving away from his standard narrative approach, Scorsese has made a new step in his movie making. Here Scorsese’s favourite opportunists don’t get what they want because they don’t deserve it for a second, and the viewer can’t sympathise with them. This movie was made for those who are willing to sympathise with the Osage tribe and other Native Americans, while Scorsese fans might be disappointed.

Read more