When Martin Scorsese adapted the best-selling book KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. into a screenplay, he preserved the basic truth of this true-crime horror story but told it from a different point of view.
Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns from WWI to a bustling oil town in northern Oklahoma, where his uncle, William “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro) is a prominent cattle rancher. Prosperous though he is, King is not the richest man in town, not by a long shot. That distinction belongs to the men and women of the Osage Nation whose members originally settled there back in the late 1800s. King tells Ernest that the Osage people are “the finest, the wealthiest and the most beautiful people on God’s earth,” but it’s soon clear that what he admires most about them is their wealth. Wealth from the oil they discovered on land nobody else wanted, land that they bought with cash after being forced from their previous territory by white settlers and the U.S. government.
The movie centers around Ernest’s relationship with Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a rich young Osage woman. He starts out as her driver but ends up as her husband. While there’s definitely some chemistry between them, nobody could be happier or more encouraging about the marriage than King. That’s because of something called “headrights.” He explains to Ernest that the Osage Nation divided the oil royalties equally among their members, but these shares cannot be bought or sold, only inherited. Marriage is the best way in. The only other way in is to become a legal guardian–and steal. A federal law (in 1921) required Osage members to prove “competency” with money or else be assigned a financial guardian.
But what if marrying into money isn’t enough for these gold diggers? Mollie has three sisters and a mother, and one by one they all die. One sister and her mother from “a wasting illness;” one sister is found in a ravine, shot in the back of the head; another sister and her husband are killed when their house explodes. Then Mollie, who is diabetic, gets sick, and the insulin that’s supposed to help her only makes her sicker. And there are–and have been–suspicious deaths in many other families. The Osage Nation sends a delegation to Washington, D.C. to ask President Coolidge for help investigating the murders.
David Grann’s non-fiction book, in contrast, tells the story through the eyes of a Texas ranger turned F.B.I. agent, who is sent to investigate the murders. And it almost reads like a ‘who done it’. In the film, the F.B.I. arrives long after we know who’s behind the killings. The only surprise is how two-faced and despicable that man is willing to be and the extent of collusion by local officials. But that doesn’t detract from the ratcheting tension of the film.
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Mark Twain observed, back in his day. “This is because fiction has to stick to possibilities; truth doesn’t.” Killers of the Flower Moon is that kind of story. It would be hard to imagine a novelist dreaming up this story from scratch, with all its haunting particulars. I think of Hitler and the extermination of six million Jews in that way, and even 9/11 still seems unimaginable–that young men would hijack commercial planes and fly them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
“Man’s inhumanity to man” seems too blithe a phrase in the presence of such evil. These are stories about men who don’t see a specific group of people as human beings, which causes these men to lose any sense of moral conscience. Most recently we can look to Israel, the attack by Hamas, and what has followed.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a long movie, a few minutes shy of 3-1/2 hours. It never bored me, but at a certain point towards the end, I felt its length. I still consider it a great fact-based historical film, one that will stand the test of time like others before it: Schindler’s List, Twelve Years a Slave, All the President’s Men, to name just a few. The three leads give stellar performances, and Lily Gladstone as Mollie has received heaps of praise, justifiably so. There’s a fascinating stillness to her character, and whenever she’s on screen, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. If the running time scares you off (or you’re waiting for the film to stream on Apple+), the book by David Grann is a compelling read at a relatively modest 338 pages. In addition to the murders, it tells the story of the fledgling FBI, which was formed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908 but was largely ineffective–and unknown–until the Osage Murders.
Analysts have said Killers wouldn’t have been made without the stature of a filmmaker like Scorsese. Paramount initially signed on but brought in Apple to foot the bill when costs kept rising—to a final price tag of $200 million. The story is a dark chapter in American history that’s been left out of the history books but still haunts members of the Osage Nation, as Grann details in the final section of his book. Scorsese handles the end of his film in a different way, but it’s also based on the truth. Truth that’s stranger than fiction.