Hed: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ atones for sins of ‘Goodfellas’

By Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@masoncounty.com
Posted 10/25/23



In recent years, Martin Scorsese has gained a bit of a reputation as a cranky old man, telling the kids to get off his lawn, through his well-publicized condemnations of the …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Hed: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ atones for sins of ‘Goodfellas’




In recent years, Martin Scorsese has gained a bit of a reputation as a cranky old man, telling the kids to get off his lawn, through his well-publicized condemnations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But speaking as a longtime fan of both Scorsese and the MCU, what I feel like a lot of folks are overlooking is that Marty is just doing what he's always done, which is stick up for the underdog.

Nobody needs to defend popcorn blockbusters, because they make money, which is all the defense they need in the marketplace, but cinema that genuinely challenges its audiences could always use more support.

Likewise, while David Grann's 2017 book was "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," Marty has never sided with straight-arrow lawmen in his true-crime tales, so his film adaptation, "Killers of the Flower Moon," shifted the story's focus to show how the people of the Osage Nation suffered the systematic extermination of their cultures and families.

Along the way, Marty atones for his unintended sins in 1990's "Goodfellas," an all-time great flick that nonetheless made the mistake of sympathizing with mafia informant Henry Hill so much that too many viewers missed its excoriating critique of the toxic mobster culture he grew up in.

In many ways, "Killers of the Flower Moon" reflects Scorsese's most well-honed recurring tendencies.

The man loves his gorgeously immersive extended tracking shots and his carefully curated era-appropriate diegetic musical scores (hello again, frequent Scorsese collaborator Robbie Robertson) in his historic dramas, and his protagonists remain short-sighted and overly grasping.

But when World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) moves to Oklahoma to work for his cattle baron uncle, William "King" Hale (Robert De Niro), Scorsese doesn't afford Ernest a voiceover narration, as he did Ray Liotta's Henry Hill, to humanize him or leaven his misdeeds.

Which matters, because not only does Ernest become a willing accomplice in the genocide of a Native American nation, but he also betrays his Osage wife, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), in the most personally Shakespearean of ways, all to appropriate her oil inheritance.

Ernest and Henry are equally self-serving and self-deluding, but Liotta's affable monologue and charming seduction can be a bit too persuasive in winning over viewers, whereas DiCaprio's crooked-toothed underbite and clearly demonstrated lack of sophistication as Ernest underscore that he's a crude lackey for his more eloquent and (dare I say) outwardly politically correct uncle, whom even the Osage people regard as a benevolent benefactor.

While I wish Gladstone was afforded meatier material to work with as Mollie, she absolutely shines with what Scorsese gives her.

Even in the depths of Mollie's medical ailments, Gladstone projects an indomitable strength, and her canny insight is so apparent that even Ernest, in his condescendingly bigoted ignorance, can't help but recognize how much she outclasses him.

Ironically, this plays to Mollie's disadvantage, since her initial, accurate suspicions of Ernest are assuaged when she perceives he's too dumb to hatch any sinister designs on her on his own, and she ultimately concludes that the nephew of the independently wealthy "King" Hale has no need to chase her for her money.

Unfortunately for Mollie, she underestimates the white man's greed and the duplicitousness of the paternalistic, self-proclaimed "King of the Osage," since we see "King" Hale taking the time to address the Osage people in their language, by their proper titles, extending a variety of financial and medical assistance that inevitably turns out to be hooked bait.

As much as I would have preferred Gladstone to have received more of the screen time set aside for DiCaprio and De Niro, De Niro does a better job of justifying his time on screen, as he offers insidious suggestions to his more simple-minded nephew, first that Ernest should court an Osage woman who would inherit oil rights, and then that he should see to her medical care.

Not that this lets Ernest off the hook for his complicity, because for as much as he claims to love his wife, what DiCaprio does very well is depict the rough-hewn wheels slowly turning inside the man's otherwise largely empty head, before he deliberately turns a blind eye to what he himself is doing, to the woman he claims to love.

The wake-up call that Scorsese is sending to privileged people, that remains relevant to this day, is that it doesn't take much to cajole ordinary folks into going along with the powerful preying upon those who don't deserve it.

A little acquisitiveness, some envious resentment and a repressed insecurity will go a long way, which is why Scorsese opens his film by showing the Osage people enjoying their sudden good fortune, with white chauffeurs and maids.

Portrayals of Native Americans enjoying material success are all too rare in popular culture, and Scorsese makes his point explicit by also referencing the "Black Wall Street" massacre of Tulsa, which occurred during this same period of history, to illustrate the backlash that minority success can incur from jealous whites.

For all these harrowing lessons, the three-and-a-half hours of "Killers of the Flower Moon" practically fly by.