While not always easy to watch, legendary director Martin Scorsese has delivered a masterfully crafted, relentlessly grim, and thematically challenging exploration of greed and the destructive wages of sin.
Killers of the Flower Moon
In recent years, director Martin Scorsese has made frequent headlines for his provocative and disparaging quotes about superhero movies and modern blockbusters. With his new film, he is reminding audiences that he is far more than a grumpy old man—he is a living legend. Killers of the Flower Moon is an emphatic demonstration that cinema can be more than hollow spectacle. While not always easy to watch, legendary director Martin Scorsese has delivered a masterfully crafted, relentlessly grim, and thematically challenging exploration of greed and the destructive wages of sin.
The story—based on a 2017 bestselling novel— tells the tragic historical events of the Osage Nation. The discovery of oil on their lands instantly elevates them to being some of the richest people in the world. That blessing soon becomes a curse as greedy men scheme to claim that money through strategic marriages and coldblooded murders.
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There is some irony that the movie trailers that played before the film at my screening included multiple glossy, CGI-filled superhero spectacles; the type of films Scorsese famously deemed, “theme park rides.” By tackling weightier subject matter, this film is a case study for his thesis that cinema can offer more than popcorn-munching diversion. Killers of the Flower Moon is not an “entertaining” movie. It is consistently engrossing and never boring, but little about the film aims to please. In other words, it is a movie that gives audiences what Scorsese believes they need to see, rather than what they may want to see.
Killers of the Flower Moon attempts to slowly break viewers down over the course of its mammoth 3:30 runtime. It’s not an inspirational story, and viewers hoping for at least a “feel good” ending should brace themselves for more heartache. Speaking of the runtime, you certainly feel the length, and it is perhaps 30 minutes too long.
At the same time, the elongated story may be a rare example where the audience fatigue is effective. The story is allowed ample space to breathe, resisting the temptation to reduce the material into an exhilarating action thriller. Instead, the slow and methodical pacing serves to shine a more profound light on the cancerous destruction of sin and greed. As the epidemic of greed and sin ravages the Osage community, viewers will yearn for Scorsese to release the throttle, but he never does, even up to the final words of the movie. It’s an exhausting experience, and I think that is the point.
Without action set pieces, Killers of the Flower Moon relies heavily on dramatic acting. The expansive cast is more than up to the challenge. Scorsese mainstays Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are both excellent. As the film’s title suggests, the focus is often on the killers. Putting antagonists at the forefront of a movie is a risky endeavor, but both actors are captivating enough to pull it off despite being unlikeable characters.
The film’s standout performer is Lily Gladstone who plays Mollie (the wife of DiCaprio’s character). I suspect Gladstone’s name will be widely featured at the next Academy Awards. She is the beating heart of the film and one of the few truly good-hearted characters, a helpless sheep surrounded by hungry wolves. Her slow deterioration from both physical sickness and internal grief is poignant imagery and a metaphor of the consequences of sin and injustice.
In the end, Killers of the Flower Moon is an effectively grim spotlight on a dark moment in American history. It is a challenging movie that demands much of viewers. There is an important place for flashy blockbusters and comic book flicks that allow audiences to escape the worries of the real world and find solace in the idealization of goodness and virtue. But, as Killers of the Flower Moon demonstrates, there is also a powerful role for cinema to showcase the unrelenting and destructive power of sin and evil. It is a movie that confronts a tragic evil in our nation’s past, while also reminding audiences that the same sinful depravity lies in the heart of all men. Such a reminder is not always enjoyable in the moment, but sometimes the hardest truths are the most profitable.
Engage The Film
Greed and The Wages of Sin
“For the love of money is the root of all evil which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 610).
“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23).
Killers of the Flower Moon is a grim exploration of these two scriptures. It is a somber cautionary tale about how greed leads to sin and sin leads to death—both literally and figuratively. One advantage of such a lengthy runtime is that Scorsese is able to depict the slow descent into sin. Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio’s character) is not a classic anti-hero, since the amount of blood on his hands strips him of any heroism. Yet, unlike his depraved uncle (played by De Niro), he is at least a conflicted antagonist.
His first crime is a simple robbery of some jewels (which he promptly loses in a game of cards). At one point he declares, “I love money! Almost as much as my own wife!” That declaration is soon put to the test. His desire for money inspires him to be complicit in increasingly awful schemes and deeds. He clearly enjoys the financial rewards, but as the murders and deceit comes closer and closer to impacting his own family, he begins to waver. Despite the moral bankruptcy of his character, he truly does love his wife and his children.
“No one can serve two masters….you cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Ernest claims to be a Catholic, but Mollie chides that he never attends church. As a result, he is shown attending a service. Unfortunately, despite this promising start, he repeatedly chooses to serve money over God. In one scene, a Bible is removed from a podium for Ernest to lean against it and accept his uncle’s skewed justice. It’s a symbolic moment, as he chooses to submit to the judgment of sinful man rather than of a righteous God.
Ernest is a man who simply cannot ever make the right decision, despite evidence of at least some internal conflict. Even at the end of the film when beginning to show some signs of repentance, he sadly reveals where his heart truly lies.
Killers of the Flower Moon does not offer viewers much hope. There is no miraculous third-act Christian conversion, and the characters unjustly treated never do receive justice (at least on this earth). Yet, by dwelling on the depravity of man and the death that sin brings on this earth, Killers of the Flower Moon ultimately demonstrates our need for a savior and rescue from beyond it.
Language: There are several F-words, perhaps a dozen other profanities, and several abuses of “God.” There are multiple instances of derogatory terms.
Violence: The violence is occasionally gruesome but never sensationalized. It is appropriately vile, rather than mere spectacle. Several characters are shot through the chest or the head (with splatters of blood). After one corpse is discovered, the doctors begin sawing into her skull (allegedly to look for the bullet).
It is later implied that they also flayed and cut the body into pieces. Several characters die in an explosion leaving them dead or bloodied. When a woman killed in the explosion is lifted, the back portion of her head flaps open. A dismembered hand belonging to another woman is also discovered on the ground, and it is remarked that the investigators are still discovering pieces of the woman. One of the murdered women is said to have been pregnant.
Sexuality: There is talk about sexual conquests, with one character confessing that he is “greedy” regarding his desire for women. A woman is accused of “opening her legs” to multiple men. Some men make crude remarks and gestures toward women. A husband and wife kiss in bed, and he jokes that they are going to “wake the children,” but the following sexual activity is not shown.
Spirituality: Instances of religion and spirituality are frequent throughout. There are several scenes which depict the native spirituality of the Osage people. Several women are visited by an owl that is said to indicate their imminent death (whether the owl is a spiritual vision or a hallucination is not clear).
When one Osage woman dies, she is shown in a dream-like scene being escorted by her ancestors into the afterlife. At the same time, the native spirituality is intermingled with Catholicism. Mollie expresses a Catholic faith and is shown attending church and confessing her fears and concerns to the priest.
Many of the other Osage people also speak about “the Lord” and seem to have adopted or incorporated some of the Catholic religion into their own belief system. Several of the white men quote scripture and publicly pray, although their evil actions expose these sentiments as hypocrisy.