Lament is at the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest film from director Martin Scorsese, which premieres on Apple TV+ and in theaters on Friday, October 20. The subject may seem well-worn—a true-life story of a murder spree—but Scorsese elevates it into a meditation on love, guilt, and what it means to be righteous.
Based on a journalistic history with the same title, Flower Moon’s story opens in Oklahoma just after the end of the First World War, when Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) drifts into town following lackluster army service. His uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), offers Ernest a home and work at his cattle ranch in Osage territory.
There, Ernest meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone), a member of the Osage people, in a context that may be unfamiliar to viewers acquainted with other stories of Native Americans. In Osage country, the tables are turned. The tribe’s land has oil—and lots of it. The Osages drive fancy cars, wear fur coats, and drip with jewels. They live in luxurious houses where they employ poor white people, like Ernest, as chauffeurs, cleaners, nannies, and cooks.
All that money—and the young women who inherit it—creates high temptation for ne’er-do-well men looking for a fast path to riches. If those riches come through love, so be it. If not, murder is an option too.
In other hands, this premise would produce a predictable story, a cautionary tale of white people’s injustice to Native Americans. That element is certainly there, but Scorsese has more to say, too, dwelling on all humans’ capacity to ignore the darkness in our own hearts.
The villains of the story are convinced of their own righteousness. They have no interest in repentance—no sense of their need for redemption—because they have muted their hearts to their own sin. “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” DiCaprio reads in halting voiceover, in one of the movie’s trailers, as an image appears of “respectable” white characters who would never think of themselves as wolves.
That depth is possible thanks to the performances of De Niro and DiCaprio, Scorsese favorites who are here returning to well-trod ground. DiCaprio’s turn as Ernest is particularly remarkable: It may be easy to play a big man—a dastardly villain or a dashing hero—but Ernest is a small man. He is not smart. He is not hardworking or principled or even ambitious in any real way. Yet DiCaprio manages to make him sympathetic by focusing on the one pure thing in his life: his love for Mollie.
This close focus creates something intimate and heartbreaking—and with it, Scorsese masterfully prods the audience to serious reflection, too, about how we would have behaved had we lived in this story’s era. It may be hard to imagine what we’d have done as a Custer or a Sitting Bull, because few of us are men or women of history. But we could all be Ernest or Mollie, ordinary folk who fall in love, start families, and witness history against the intimate backdrop of our own lives.
De Niro’s William King Hale, meanwhile, is an unsettling figure. He presents himself as a righteous man, full of care for his Osage neighbors, always ready with a lesson from the Bible. He lauds the Osages as good people, speaks their language, knows their families by their Osage names. He is a friend to the Osages, he claims. He loves each child of God equally, he claims—and perhaps sincerely. Scorsese is assured enough in his art to leave us with more questions than answers. Does Hale truly believe in his own goodness, and if so, how is that possible? Is the human heart really so self-deceived?
That examination of hypocrisy—of the Lord’s name taken in vain—is perhaps the most disquieting part of the film. Most characters are Christians who worship together in the local Catholic church (though the Osages also maintain older traditions). The contrast Scorsese explores is not between different faiths but between publicly professed faith and lived faith, between people who talk and people who listen.
The modern world is all noise, but the Osages seek the stillness of an empty church or the emptiness of the prairie to pour out their sorrow and confusion directly to God. Each Osage character is a Jeremiah: one who cannot help but see the surrounding darkness—and cannot help but hope for deliverance.
Despite the turmoil, the Osages live out their lives and faith in solemn quiet—the quiet of a running stream or whispering wind. And like them, the movie is most powerful in its silent moments. Scorsese has the confidence of a director who knows when to let the wind speak.
This does not mean Flower Moon is comfortable or calm. Perhaps the most disturbing moments are the instances of casual racism, the matter-of-fact comments on a baby’s skin color or a parade in the background in which a group of native mothers of soldiers march alongside the Ku Klux Klan. These details are all the more powerful for their nonchalance. The characters are undisturbed, but modern viewers will be knocked off balance.
More broadly, though, we are left with lament. There is much loss to be borne: loss of a people, loss of loved ones, loss of a dream, loss of one’s own soul. “Narrow is the way,” one character tells Ernest. In Killers of the Flower Moon, that narrow way is left uncharted.
Killers of the Flower Moon is rated R for violence, grisly images, and some language. There is little sexual content, the most graphic being married love that is quickly faded out. There are some images of violence and several disturbing murders. Scorsese manages to make each death felt as a new outrage.
Rebecca Cusey is a lawyer and movie critic in Washington, DC.