‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is a Fossil-Fueled Gangster Movie
Martin Scorsese turned oil extraction into an even darker Goodfellas.
The mafia honorific “don,” meaning “boss” — as in Don Corleone or the Quiet Don Russell Bufalino — derives from an older Italian usage of the word as a title for male nobility, like a prince or a duke. You might, in a stretch, even manage to get away with translating it as “king.”
Martin Scorsese’s newest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, doesn’t have a don, or even, as far as I could tell, any Italians, which might prevent its ready categorization as a gangster film in the vein of the director’s most memorable work, like Goodfellas, Mean Streets, or The Irishman. I’ve already seen Killers of the Flower Moon called a Western (I suppose because there are moonshiners, outlaws, and a boom town that was actually, incredibly, named Whizbang) as well as a work of “true crime” (because it is based on David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, about the Osage murders).
But just because no one ever refers to the story’s central antagonist, William Hale, as “don” doesn’t mean he isn’t one: He’s the head of a crime family, politically influential even beyond Osage Country, and heck, he’s even played by Robert De Niro. Not to mention everyone deferentially calls him “King.” In this way, with Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese has added another outstanding gangster film to his portfolio, only instead of wise guys running cocaine or skimming cash from a casino, the central crime stems from oil.
In 1871, the U.S. government forced the Osage tribe from a reservation in Kansas to what was believed to be an undesirable swath of northern Oklahoma. Unlike many other tribes at the time, the Osage legally bought and owned their land, including its mineral rights, which meant that the 2,229 original surviving members would share any natural wealth that was discovered on their territory in the form of an individually allotted “headright.”
And what was discovered was oil.
The Osage started selling oil leases for their land to white prospectors, with the petroleum wealth flowing back to the headright holders, making them some of the richest people in the world per capita at the time. But quickly, opportunistic outsiders descended, looking for ways to make their own buck. The creation of a demeaning and racist guardianship system became one easy way to siphon off money to well-positioned whites, who supposedly “managed” the funds for “incompetent” full-blooded Native Americans (in truth, the whites paid themselves handsomely while giving the actual headright holders a pathetically small “allowance”). But it was even more lucrative if you could get a headright of your own by marrying into an Osage family and inheriting one.
Directors have used oil as a catalyst for capitalist commentary and crime dramas before — There Will Be Blood (2007), based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is of course particularly memorable, and How to Blow Up a Pipeline was a terrific new entry from earlier this year. But what sets Scorsese’s immediately apart is that it is based on a true story, a fact he reminds us of with the insertion of occasional black-and-white camerawork and archival photography. However, with some genre sleight of hand, it never veers into becoming true crime.
A straighter adaptation of David Grann’s book might have preserved its twists and slow reveals — hallmarks of the true crime genre, which invites armchair detectives to gather the clues and put the pieces together alongside the investigators. Scorsese’s script (co-written with Eric Roth) is much more linear and cuts all but the core storyline. King immediately comes across as sinister and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is revealed early to be in on his uncle’s plot. Instead of carefully doled-out clues, the adaptation’s propulsion comes from playing up the familiar standbys of the gangster genre: the gruesome killing of accomplices and witnesses; some comically dumb criminals; a sprinkle of insurance fraud; the strain of crime on domestic life (admittedly an understatement in the case of Ernest and Molly); and the eventual arrival of the feds and the final downfall of the racket.
It’s an arc Scorsese has used plenty of times before — Goodfellas and Casino immediately spring to mind — with one important exception. The director’s gangster films that follow the rise and fall of a criminal tend to include a lengthy period of spectacle and hedonism, when the aspirational lifestyle of the gangster is finally achieved. Doors are held open for them; strangers come by to pay their respects; money is spent freely and lavishly. But besides some modest home improvements, Ernest and to a smaller extent, King, never seem to actually be enjoying any of the oil fortune. Instead, the killing and scheming are all done for some future gain of money that is never actually realized.
Telling the story of the Osage murders as a gangster film has implications beyond just interesting genre play, though. While traditional gangster films might feel “fun” when the operation is a success (to the point that Scorsese is frequently and unfairly criticized as “glorifying” the mobsters he portrays), Killers of the Flower Moon is extraordinarily careful and respectful of the real history it is portraying. And it’s that history — which reverberates today — that makes the film so haunting. We should fully appreciate that Martin Scorsese, who isfrequently cited as one of the greatest working filmmakers today, made a movie about the evils beget by oil extraction starring two of America’s biggest movie stars, DiCaprio and De Niro. And while Killers of the Flower Moon is not about “climate,” per se, it certainly qualifies as part of a growing trend of climate-adjacent films like Dune (2021), Parasite (2019), and Black Panther (2018) that are not only mainstream but also getting Oscar nods. Killers of the Flower Moon is already being discussed by prognosticators as a favorite for Best Picture — and could be the first-ever overtly climate-related movie to win.
That’s huge not because Scorsese is bringing climate to the masses, but because these are stories and histories that can no longer be ignored by Hollywood. The fact that Killers of the Flower Moon can actually pull off being an entertaining gangster story shows how much progress we’re making from scold-y climate projects of the past, which never seemed to have much creative ambition beyond flagging that sea levels are rising. That the King of the Osage Hills is a cinematic mobster worthy of mention besides Coppola’s Don Corleone or Goodfella’s Jimmy Conway just becomes the icing on the cake.
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