Native Viewpoint film review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese creates a masterful film with Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio based on the 1920s Osage Reign of Terror. Lily Gladstone delivers an electrifying and Oscar-worthy performance

Once in a lifetime, something comes along that shapes history in a new way. Director Martin Scorsese has created a film that will resonate for generations to come.

Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the real history of the “Osage Reign of Terror,” will ceremoniously take its place among the best films of all time.

As I sit down to write this review, I have to say that as a Native American journalist, film critic and author, Killers of the Flower Moon is like nothing I have ever seen before.

I am 56 years old in 2023 and have watched my share of Westerns with Native Americans in the films. Some have been terribly inappropriate and even offensive. And while others have been historically accurate, these films were highlighted by white saviors or other unfortunate themes. 

As an aside, before he made the film, Martin Scorsese met with the Osage community to discuss his intentions for the film, which is based on the book of the same name and is written by a non-Native author, David Grann. Scorsese took the Osage communities’ concerns into account, and then turned to them in order to ensure every detail of Osage culture was handled with the utmost respect and care.

Talking with several members of the Osage community before the film, I gained quite a bit of personal insight as a Mohawk film critic and journalist.

This is what I took with me going in to watch this film … and yes, I also read Grann’s book.   

As I get into my critique, here is the film’s synopsis:

The film’s synopsis provided by Paramount: 

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is an epic western crime saga, where real love crosses paths with unspeakable betrayal. Based on a true story and told through the improbable romance of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), “Killers of the Flower Moon” tracks the suspicious murders of members of the Osage Nation, who became some of the richest people in the world overnight after oil was discovered underneath their land. “Killers of the Flower Moon” also stars Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons, and is directed by Academy Award winner Martin Scorsese from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Martin Scorsese, based on David Grann’s best-selling book.

So what does a film critic, who is Native American think?

A quick fun story: on October 12, I reached out to the folks at IllumiNative, who were great enough to ask if I, a Native journalist, was available to attend a screening of Killers of the Flower Moon back in May. I circled around to inquire if there might be a viewing in Washington, DC. They said, ‘Yes, four hours from now.’ The drive was three and a half hours, so I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and ran out the door, arriving at the Landmark Theater 5 minutes before the film began. Thank you, IllumiNative, for the assist. 

As I sat and waited, I was hopeful for something new. I wasn’t disappointed.

I have watched countless Westerns and period films with old-fashioned or period-pieced costuming. This film, though it was based on the Osage murders or the “Osage Reign of Terror” that took place in the 1920s, never felt like a period piece. I felt like I was there, in a historically accurate time, watching as if I was a fly on the wall, watching real events, real conversations and perhaps for the very first time in a film of this caliber, a painstakingly accurate portrayal of Native people in terms of the Osage language, regalia and traditions.

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But that wasn’t just it, and this is hard to explain—I even had this discussion with a fellow reviewer by the name of Anthony, who agreed with me—that this film was clean, fresh and direct in its message.

When I have watched films such as a Western or another historical picture, there is a certain amount of noise, pollution or some sort of static that keeps a part of the story unclear. 

The closest way I can explain is by using an analogy, so here goes. If other period films were the ocean, many of them would be cloudy or hard to see through. In many cases, they would be filled with garbage, oil, mud, sand or bits of rotted fish. Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, on the other hand, would be the brightest, clearest, cleanest blue, and you would be able to see to the bottom, its beauty unparalleled and majestic.

The ability for Scorsese to create a film like this through decades of refining his craft, painstakingly going through moment by moment to create a clear and concise message.

Attention film students, study this film, memorize it, and learn from it.

In my view, and I understand this is a bold statement, Killers of the Flower Moon stands as one of the greatest films Scorsese has made in his career. I believe the film will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

The actors 

Robert De Niro and Leonardo Dicaprio premiering in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)
Robert De Niro and Leonardo Dicaprio premiering in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)

Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays Ernest Burkhart, does an exceptional job of portraying a former military cook who comes to Oklahoma in search of a new life. He connects with his uncle William Hale, the self-proclaimed King of the Osage and white businessman played by Robert De Niro. De Niro is unsurprisingly masterful at portraying a man who strives only to line his pockets and uplift his status, even if it means killing anyone who might stand in his way, especially the Osage.

The stand-out performance in the film is delivered by Lily Gladstone, who portrays the unflinchingly strong yet solemn character Mollie Burkhart. 

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorcese in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023.
Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorcese in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)

Over and over again, my breath would pause as Gladstone spoke; there was a depth of character I don’t believe I have ever seen in a film before. She was truly carrying the weight of the Osage people on her shoulders, grieving for the countless lives lost, regardless of the monetary treasures she might have. There was a duality in her portrayal; it was as if you could see the pain and depth of suffering she held behind her eyes, while at the same time, no key could unlock the secrets she wished to hold private. She was an open book, with many inaccessible chapters. 

In my view, Lily Gladstone’s performance was among the top I have ever seen in my career as a film critic. Though De Niro and DiCaprio might both be contenders for an Oscar as they both delivered stellar performances, Gladstone’s performance elevates her to A-list status. I believe other critics will share my views.

Lily Gladstone delivers an electrifying Oscar-worthy performance

Vincent Schilling

In my view, in her portrayal of Mollie Burkhart, Lily Gladstone delivers an electric Oscar-worthy performance. 

So many actors delivered wonderful performances, which I do credit to the ability of Scorcese as the iconic director he is. I was immersed in the relationships between Mollie and her mother, Lizzie, beautifully portrayed by Tantoo Cardinal, as well as Mollie’s sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Reta (JaNae Collins) and Minnie. (Jillian Dion) 

JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in "Killers of the Flower Moon," premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)
JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)

I have to give hats off to Jesse Plemons as Tom White in what might be his strongest performance. Plemons portrays a federal agent in the earliest days of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and amidst his fellow agents, it was a sincere joy to see Tatanka Means as John Wren, the Native American agent who assisted White in the Osage murders. 

The world of Killers of the Flower Moon created by Scorsese

The ensemble of characters in this film is what truly brings everything l to life. From the cars racing alongside anxious horses and large-roomed barber shops combined with pool halls to the rustic and dirty bars and music-filled saloons, this 1920s world created by Scorsese always felt authentic.  

I remember sitting in the theater, completely awestruck by the vastness of the world shown by Scorsese. One of the opening scenes involves DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart driving in a car to the estate of his uncle William Hale, with hundreds of cattle all over the grassy landscape as we, the viewers, look out on the horizon, we see hundreds, if not thousands of oil wells. The reality and complexity, the simple realism, sticks with me now. 

The conversations never felt like rehearsed lines by actors. Every bit of interaction seemed completely natural and random as if any words spoken were a happenstance that we stumbled into. In the film, there were a few times a fly landed on DiCaprio’s character, Ernest Burkhart, and instead of ignoring the obvious, DiCaprio violently lashed out at the fly, as any person might if they were under extreme stress. This might seem like a simple thing, but I have always said, ‘The difference between good and great, is detail.’ 

As the film progresses, the relationship between DiCaprio and Gladstone’s characters deepens and becomes more complex. Throughout the film, their conversations come across with a simple flawlessness that graces the screen effortlessly. 

Again, I am struggling to put into words what I experienced. On one side, I feel the gentility and strength of the Osage people. In contrast, I also feel the rage, greed and jealousy of the non-Native residents, who seek to obtain money, property, and ultimately, the headrights belonging to the Osage community members. 

And just as the conversations were light, flowing, and real, the murders were all too final, ugly, heartless and resounding. Gunshot after gunshot, a life ended, and with each final moment of a person’s life ending, its shocking finality, slamming into my heart and gut, with the sudden final thud of a body falling with the suddenness of the bullet ripping through a person, uncaring in the same way as the person who pulled the trigger.

White Saviorism and dramatization vs reality

As I expected to see, there are already comments on social media and comments on video platforms such as YouTube inquiring if Killers of the Flower Moon is about “White Saviorism,” or anything similar.

I would have to say no. That is not to say that there isn’t a white man coming to the aid of the Osage people, meaning the chief federal agent Tom White from Washington’s Bureau of Investigation, the agency that would formally become the FBI. 

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in "Killers of the Flower Moon," premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)
Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” premiering in theaters around the world on October 20, 2023. (Courtesy Apple TV / Paramount)

White, brilliantly played by Jesse Plemons, is not a white savior created by Scorsese and screenplay writer Eric Roth to save the Osage, but rather White is a true representation of a real character in history, who existed in a time where white men did make most of the decisions in the 1920s. So yes, White is coming to investigate in order to uncover the reasons for the continuous series of murders of the Osage people in the 1920s, but the presence of White is not to quell the guilt of white writers or filmmakers, but rather to accurately portray history.  

If I had any criticism of the film, it would be about the relationship between Ernest and Mollie. But my criticism is only because there is no way of truly knowing what a husband and wife might say to each other in private. Did Ernest truly love Mollie and vice versa? I don’t know. 

So, I question if he was really concerned about her welfare, or just trying to secure her headrights through inheritance as her husband. 

But as I criticized this potential romantic relationship between Ernest and Mollie, a journalistic colleague of mine, who had also seen the film on Thursday, reminded me, that this is not a historical documentary; it is a dramatic film. I have to agree.

That said, I realized my conjecture was biased, and I couldn’t know what kind of conversations Ernest and Mollie had in their own private moments.

Final thoughts  

With a runtime of 206 minutes, I and other critics at the film viewing noticed openly that not one single person got up at any point. No one wanted to miss a moment.

As a Native American, and as a critic in general, I absolutely loved this film. 

Some moments were horrible and agonizing to watch, not because the film was horrible or agonizing, but because Scorsese brought the reality of this ugly history to light. I am so incredibly grateful for that. 

There are several actors in this film I have known for years, and to see them in this movie, gives me a joy I can hardly describe.

And while so many in this world are trying to silence history, Scorsese brings the ugliness of history to the forefront, and within that effort, is great beauty.

Watching the last minutes of the movie, which included a creative end and an amazing heartfelt cameo, I felt a completeness overcome me, and I realized, at 56 years old, as the sound of a Native drum filled the theater, that I never ever thought I would see a film like this. 

Nia:wen (Thank you) Mr. Scorsese.

I will never forget this film.

About Killers of the Flower Moon

“Killers of the Flower Moon” will premiere in theaters around the world, including IMAX® theatres, on Friday, October 20, 2023.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, Lily Gladstone, Tantoo Cardinal, John Lithgow, Brendan Fraser, Cara Jade Myers, JaNae Collins, Jillian Dion, William Belleau, Louis Cancelmi, Tatanka Means, Michael Abbot Jr., Pat Healy, Scott Shepard, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Eric Roth & Martin Scorsese

Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas and Daniel Lupi

Executive Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Rick Yorn, Adam Somner, Marianne Bower, Lisa Frechette, John Atwood, Shea Kammer, Niels Juul

Production Company: Imperative Entertainment and Sikelia Productions

8 thoughts on “Native Viewpoint film review: Killers of the Flower Moon

  1. Great review, I am Osage, and I have seen the film and a long-time journalist. I am also the great grandson of Henry Roan, and I wondered if the greatness I saw in the film was filtered through my Osage eyes. That said I appreciate and respect your thoughtful review. I agree, especially with your view of Molly and Ernest. But then again who can explain the human heart. I was an extra in the film and I can tell you no detail was too small, and everyone worked so hard on this film. And it was a joy to work on.

    1. Thanks so much for your great comment Louis, I appreciate your words so very much … that must have been a fantastic experience! If you get a chance, check out my Sterlin Harjo interview about Reservation Dogs, it was a great interview. Thanks again!

      1. My heart hurts so bad for your family my dear friend…I wish I could take the pain away

  2. I just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your review of this movie. I am anxiously awaiting the premier here in Oklahoma on October 20th. I have no Native American blood in my body according to my DNA test, but I grew up in Bartlesville Oklahoma only about 5 miles from Osage County and maybe 18 miles from Pawhuska. One of my dearest childhood friends is Osage. Her mother was a full-blood Osage with a headright. Of course, as a child, I was never aware of this great injustice and tragedy. She and I were good friends growing up in the 50’s. I have always had the deepest respect for my friend and her heritage. Her mother instilled it in her and she has continued sharing it with her children and grandchildren. They are scattered around the USA now but during their special tribal times in June, they all come to Pawhuska to be with their families and celebrate their heritage. My husband and I have been invited to share several June evenings with them at their traditional family meals and dances. My life has been enriched by having my friend in my life. I am so thankful that both David Grann wrote the story and Martin Scorsese made the movie with the respect and approval of the Osage Nation. I am so glad that the rest of the world is going to have the opportunity to meet the Osage and hear their story.

  3. My concern lies with the Ernest and Molly relationship too. The filmmakers seem to have wanted to center the film around the complex nature of this relationship but the fact is that this is not at all a fact. This is the creative license part. Ernest could have been played as completely devious and the film would not be any less accurate. In reading the book by David Grann I felt only contempt for the white folks who feigned their love and friendship towards the Osage people. This decades long crime spree may represent the most premeditated and largest serial murder conspiracy in the history of the United States.

  4. Let’s not forget that in 1926 the first Native American filmmaker James Young Deer made a 90 minute black and white silent film about the Reign of Terror in Oklahoma called Tragedies of the Osage Hills!

  5. my great great grandfather Walter Jackson took an Osage (woman) out of the murdering spree and brought her up to auburn ny and kept her identity secret out of the fear of greed, and by just using the blackfooot tribe as all that was needed to be known about her. I remember their daughter my great grandmother Essie Cooper, who passed 25 years ago. Her youngest son Gary my grandfathers youngest brother, and is still alive, disclosed that Osage was her/our actual lineage. the movie didn’t seam long at all. the greatest upset that I felt was the source of the greedy murderers were of the Freemason scum bags. Thanks to the director, that aspect was in the film. and it is important to note that it wasn’t white supremacy that sourced the massive dead body count, it was the Freemason, Masonic Lodge occult that carries white supremacists within it, that was behind all the death over greed and the love of money mingled with jealousy.

  6. “Did Ernest truly love Mollie and vice versa? I don’t know. “. The book and other historical documents, suggest a much more cynical (realistic?) view of Ernest. When he gets out of jail He takes up with another woman and continues his life of crime. I saw nothing redeeming him in the books and documents. It is a film only based on truth not a documentary, but why is the exploitation of women the truth that doesn’t have to be told. Why does some white man’s “love” have to be centered. I know Americans love to go back to in history and whitewash, powerful white men, or even have nostalgia for the days that they could act horribly with impunity. I understand and appreciate your point about this not being the usual white savior film. But perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that gender and Mollie’s voice and agency that gets thrown under the bus.

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