Something is uncomfortably wrong with “Killers of the Flower Moon”.
I had resisted seeing it, probably because of its enormous length and Martin Scorsese’s instruction that it be shown in theaters without an intermission. My bladder, my need for popcorn, and my general uneasiness about a highly hyped film about Native America had kept me away until New Year’s eve. But on a night where I am resolutely committed to being a homebody, it seemed the perfect time to see if I had been denying myself a glimpse of cinematic greatness as so many viewers had seemed to suggest.
I had not.
There are cultural issues and cinematic issues. Let’s start with the cinematic issues.
Here’s a secret. Originally, Leonardo de Caprio was supposed to play the Bureau agent Thomas Bruce White, and Jesse Plemons was to be Ernest Burkhardt. But De Caprio insisted on switching the roles. And the film is the worse for it.
Jesse Plemons (Power of the Dog, the Irishman), excels at playing characters earnestly trying to do right in situations where they are in over their depth, which is exactly what was needed in the character of Ernest. De Caprio, well, he’s one of those actors who is always De Caprio. He doesn’t disappear into a character. It’s one of the perils of stardom, but the great ones can overcome it. Di Caprio just didn’t communicate the dim Golden Retriever earnestness that the role demanded. He had his moments, but he seemed to be acting his character, rather than inhabiting it.
And Robert Di Niro. What was he doing? From the first moment on screen you said, “Ooh, this is a bad guy.” There was no nuance, no sense that he could have tricked anyone into believing that he had their best intentions at heart. He mugged his way through the film with the presence of an oily used car salesman.
But it is the cultural issues that most concern me. Scorsese gave a ton of screen time to Lily Gladstone, a Blackfoot/Nez Perce actress, who played Mollie. And she took good advantage of it, giving a nuanced and complex portrayal of a woman trying to live in two cultures. Her presence went a long way toward mollifying the Native viewers who were torn between cheering that an important story was being told and having to deal with the fact that without Molly, that story was driven by and focused on the white stars.
Say what you will about Dances with Wolves — white hero, embarrassing character of a white woman raised by Indians — it showed the humanity and cultural complexity of Native people and Native life. “Killers of the Flower Moon” threw in gratuitous glimpses of Native life and culture, but it was window dressing, not the ground on which the whole story was, and should have been, built.
Who were the Osage? How did they live? What was the process by which they had reached the state of cultural confusion they found themselves in? Despite its three-and-a-half hour length, “Killers of the Flower Moon” couldn’t find time to delve into these issues. Give us a drunk Indian woman, a dissatisfied Indian elder or two, put some cautionary or aggrieved words into their mouths, and get on with the story. The internal cultural conflicts were embodied in separate characters as exemplars, they were not explored inside of any individual characters.In the end it was a star turn for Hollywood heavy hitters, and a transparent effort to create a big screen epic in the grand tradition of Hollywood westerns.
I have spent my life pointing out that there are two different aspects to the Native American story that must be addressed. The first is that Native history has been effectively expunged from the American historical narrative. “Killers of the Flower Moon” does good service in shining a light on this harsh truth.
The second is that Native cultures and ways have much to teach us all about how to live worthy lives on this common American land. In this regard, “Killers of the Flower Moon” fails miserably.
If the story had begun with Mollie and her family and followed the dissolution of their traditional values and their growing awareness of what was happening to them as their traditional way of life was disappearing under the seduction and inevitability of American capitalist culture, this could have been an insightful, elegiac masterpiece. But instead it gave us Anthropology 1 glimpses of Osage values and beliefs — a shot of burials here, the clumsy appearance of a harbinger owl there — without delving in to the deeper meaning of the power of ritual, the nature of family, the spiritual significance of the land, or a dozen other aspects of Native belief that could have been explored rather than just used as cultural window dressing.
Native ways of thinking, acting, knowing, speaking, sharing, and caring are sorely needed in this current time when America has so clearly lost its way. It’s all well and good to point out, as “Killers of the Flower Moon” does, how Native America has been victimized. But it is more important to explain how Native America can be our teacher.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” squandered a rare opportunity. It worthily underscored what we as a nation have done. But to be the film that it could have been, it should have been equally as much about what we as a nation have lost.