My Take on Killers of the Flower Moon

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.

22 thoughts on “My Take on Killers of the Flower Moon”

  1. Thank-you, Kent. The rare opportunity to share with the viewers what we as a nation has lost, was, as you said, squandered.
    Kudos to the movie for showing what our nation has done. But without explaining how Native America can be our teacher, with the concentration on the victimization, the movie was difficult to watch.
    Your books take us into the minds and lives of Native Americans. Your books are satisfying and fulfilling, and we come to know each character–sometimes warts and all–and yet, their courage and family values and the depth of their joys as well as their pain and sadness, are painted in broad, effective, and beautiful strokes.

  2. Thank you. I have not seen the film and have no desire to.
    Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that star power and the blockbuster agenda ruled. Not only is it a pity that the assumption of white superiority remains, but it is tragic in the face of ongoing ecological crises. Now more than ever Native wisdom needs to be heard, respected and put into action.

  3. I have loved all of your books and so highly respect you and the work you do to enlighten the white population. I am, however, going to take the proverbial high road and say that the movie , while falling short, hopefully , did open eyes and hearts to the native culture and profound injustices done to them. The movie was another step toward understanding…..

  4. I have learned to live with a certain level of ambiguity, but sometimes to simplify things means to gain clarity. In the case of Killers of the Flower Moon, which I found very confusing and lacking any insights and/or real enjoyment , for me it came down to these two questions: who is telling the story, and whose story is it to tell? The film failed as far as delivering authenticity on both of these counts. I think if you had written the screenplay, Kent, it would have been a totally different story due to the perspective you would have brought, and I have no doubt that it would have been far more enjoyable and insightful.

  5. I fully agree, Kent. It may be why I thought of you watching this movie.
    And maybe you’d do for the Osage what you’ve done for the Nez Perce, Sioux et al.
    You become part of the Native Americans you meet and live with, bringing us into their lives.
    Scorsese’s Shock Program has its place. But there was a lot missing that I had the same difficulties.

    The thing I like best about your books is rereading them, especially during the holidays.
    From the Sand Creek Massacre, the killing of Sitting Bull, the Mankato Sioux hanging and Wounded Knee Massacre.
    It’s why I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or traditional Christmas. I only honor the Lord’s First Step to His Cross.

    Many Blessings Kent
    Hope you’ve resettled okay in your hometown.
    Kept you and your family in my prayers.

  6. Hi Kurt
    Struggling to find away to get you to the California goldtrails. Methinks I need to fo a lot of work first. I need bout 25 sets of your trilogy to loan out to get across who you are and how different indigenous thought and experience are from out white experience. What kind of desl could you make me for the books!

  7. . Thanks for e.mail I have read most of your books plus the audiobooks Neither Wolf Nor Dog . Wolf at Twilight. and The girl who sang to the Buffalo .

  8. Exactly. Spot on. Your summary must also explain the hollowness, the lack of soul all the characters seem to have-even Mollie for me. It was as if none of them had a sense of who they were, or why they had done what they did. That feeling explains most of the empty experience it is to be an “American.”

    Thank you.

  9. Jessica Carhart

    I would appreciate it if you wrote a book about exactly that: what knowledge, and generic land centered cultural wisdom was lost. I have worked with a couple of tribes and I’m aware that is lost in the present too. Relative to climate change, I don’t see much hope except if more people learn what that is and how to resurrect it within themselves and our culture. As an older grad student I’m focusing on learning the practical ways matriarchal societies were governed (equally with men and reciprocal). It would be great if a book could restore our collective consciousness in connection with land centered consciousness and values. Thank you, Jessica

  10. Any books I send out I have to purchase on my own dime (at a discounted rate) plus shipping. I can get those rates for you if you like. I’m assuming that the publisher would give you those rates as well. Let me know if you want me to pursue this. I’m so far out of the literary mainstream that many of the people who should find my books don’t. And this includes the film makers. If you have the energy and the access, you certainly have my blessing to proceed.

  11. Did you read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON? I have not seen the movie, but found the book insightful and sickening.
    It was several years ago I read the book, so I am not sure if your comments are apropos to the book. Obviously, mental images of characters come from the author’s words and our own imaginations. Thankfully, I had no “star” to cloud my
    vision of anyone.
    I would be interested in your take on the book. I value your opinions and respect for our First People’s.

  12. I did not read the book. A few of the commenters did. You can read their responses for yourself on my facebook pages as well as here on my website. My wife read the book and, from her journalist’s perspective, thought it was fair and honest and unflinching. I can’t corroborate or contradict that. She did feel roughly the same way about the film as I did.

  13. Dear Kent,
    It is really great that Lily Gladstone earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama–the first for a Native Woman. I await to see what will be the “blockbuster” Hollywood movie that is essential for all residents of this nation to see–to understand where we are as a nation. We await your screenplay and production of Chief Joseph and the Flight of The Nez Perce. The book you researched and wrote is the most in-depth book about this epic journey and this extraordinary man that will ever be written. And we will learn more about the Old Ways, which is essential for us in this time of change and chaos. Your time is now, dear brilliant and insightful Kent.

  14. I also agree with everything you stated. Perhaps a series would have been better to include a more in-depth depiction of the Osage
    peoples. Lily Gladstone carried the entire movie and I’m happy she won the golden globe award. Well deserved.

  15. I have to agree that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Leonardo DiCaprio and it seems unfair that he got the title role instead of the original actor. I was thinking about seeing the film, but, if I do, it will be on the cable network that I overpay for and not the theatre. Thank you for your insight on a film that for some reason I was in no hurry to see.

  16. I’ve read a few of the comments, but I’m speaking from my own perspective. The success of the movie was premised on the famous white producer and presence of A-list white actors who worked in it. It would have made little money or achieved much acclaim written, produced, and presented if they weren’t involved, which brings into question why the movie was made actually. In spite of the professed sympathies of all involved, I don’t think it a will make any difference in the plight of the Native American, who many don’t believe still exists and, if they do, think they are living off free perks from the government (as opposed to treaty rights) or casino money (which is generally not true either). I saw the movie with my wife and then read the book which is, like most books made into movies, considerably more detailed. That being said, Natives don’t not make books and writing the basis of their lives, unlike us Westerners. Books, regardless of how well-written, do not capture the ingrained reality of Native life described by sights, sounds, experiences, and the still living history they have experienced. My wife of 49 years is a Mexican-American born and raised on the border where we still live. She is dark and looks Native. At powwows, they want to let her in free. I had her ancestry tested, as well as my own, and she is almost 1/2 Native, presumably Mexican, by DNA, as are a great number of other Mexican citizens and their direct progeny. But her “history” starts here with her grandparents, all 4 of whom were Mexican, and 3 were Mexican immigrants. My wife and mother-in-law both have Native haplotypes. Why does this matter? Because their Native cultural identity was white-washed. The entire family on both sides has no clue where they came from, other than a general area, or what tribes they might have been affiliated with. The extended family has been quite successful over here including doctors, lawyers, managers, etc. among the descendants of these 4 grandparents. Why do I bring this up? Because watching the movie caused her to read the book, and I can’t remember her reading a book as long as I’ve known her. I think she is a more well-rounded American for watching this movie. That’s all I have to say.

  17. Hello Kent! Do you remember us at Normandale College? I would really like to talk to you about a panel discussion I would like to hold in April ‘24. A mutual friend of ours, a Lakota woman suggested that I contact you about this idea (based upon showing segments of the Killers of the Flower Moon film. Have you returned to Minnesota?

  18. When I found out that Leonardo Di Caprio was to star in the movie, my immediate reaction was that I had no desire to see it. I’m glad I didn’t go.

  19. I agree with your review in every respect. I am glad that Killers of the Flower Moon was published because he gained a wide readership; however, Linda Hogan’s 1991 novel, ‘Mean Spirit,’ would have been a much better basis for creating a movie about this story. Hogan is an excellent writer and her novel was from the Osage point of view. What a shame that her novel is so seldom acknowledged. And I don’t understand how David Grann, while researching his book, failed to come across Hogan’s novel.

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