The Balance of Tragedy and History in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in 'Killers of the Flower Moon.' (Picture via Apple Studios)

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon arrived in theaters late last month as a bundle of contradictions: a three-and-a-half-hour epic, rolled out from arthouses to IMAX stadiums, financed by one of the streaming companies whose main business model threatens the very movie-going experience that Scorsese holds dear

But arguably an even greater tension exists between Scorsese’s singular talents and the needs of this particular story. Why is the director of gangster flicks like Goodfellas or Casino the right person to tell a story about the tragic history of the Osage nation? More pointedly, as some progressives have asked, does an old white guy have any business telling a story about Native American suffering?

Another director might have either rejected the premise of that question outright, or declined to take on the project at all. But Scorsese, no stranger to controversy, instead chose the harder middle way: reshaping the source material, in collaboration with Osage leaders, while maintaining the thematic concerns and stylistic hallmarks that have long graced his own work. The end result is a movie that anticipates objections but is not beholden to them, making Killers of the Flower Moon a model of sensitive and nuanced adaptation.

The film is based on David Grann’s 2017 bestseller of the same name, which recounts how the Osage nation—which was resettled on an oil-rich territory of Oklahoma in the late 19th century—were systematically murdered for their headrights in the 1920s. Grann’s book unfurls the plot piecemeal, gradually expanding the reader’s understanding of the conspiracy until an FBI lawman arrives to sort out the puzzle pieces and mete out justice. But Scorsese and screenplay co-writer Eric Roth have dispensed with the mystery, downplayed the investigation, and instead revealed the two main conspirators up front. 

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