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Scorsese’s Forced Perspective

Scorsese’s Forced Perspective

'Killers of the Flower Moon' should have been a late-career masterpiece from a living legend. That’s not possible in our cultural climate.

In the nearly seven years since Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI entered development, I waited for the inevitable blowback. The most seasoned chronicler of America’s ethnic strife was setting his sights on the western for the first time, putting his stamp on the vicious killings of Native Americans by white settlers over the headrights to the oil flowing through Osage land in the 1920s. Even though the project’s announcement was concurrent with the hypersensitive opening days of the Trump presidency, nary an objection was raised.

Upon its premiere, the 3.5-hour film earned raves at Cannes last May as buzz built on the way to a 93% RottenTomatoes score. The Oscar chatter began shortly after, not only for frequent Scorsese collaborators Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio but for Native American actress Lily Gladstone. Then, sure enough, as soon as the film opened to an impressive $23 million at the box office, the callouts started.  

Canadian actor Devery Jacobs, the 30-year-old supporting player on the FX show Reservation Dogs and precious little else, garnered the most press attention of her career with an X thread complaining about the movie: “I HAVE THOUGHTS. I HAVE STRONG FEELINGS. This film was painful, grueling, unrelenting and unnecessarily graphic. Being Native, watching this movie was f—ing hellfire. Imagine the worst atrocities committed against yr ancestors, then having to sit thru a movie explicitly filled w/ them, w/ the only respite being 30min long scenes of murderous white guys talking about/planning the killings.”

It may have channeled the rhetoric of a tufthunting board member of the Parents Television Council, but the earliest blow to Marty’s Oscar glory has now put the blood in the water.

Jacobs’s posturing aside, in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese did everything possible to treat his subject matter with respect. He and co-writer Eric Roth reworked the narrative from the perspective of DeNiro’s tumbleweed colonialist Big William Hale and his dimwitted yes-man nephew, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), rather than a 10-gallon-hat-wearing FBI agent (Jesse Plemons). He sought to hire Osage actors, advisors, and crew members to privilege authenticity over Hollywood gloss, earning public approval from the tribe and, ironically, becoming a potential real-life white savior whose film may lead to the reopening of closed land rights cases. He even shifted the focus of the film to Gladstone’s Molly Burkhart, leading to claims that she is “the heart of the movie” becoming the banal leitmotif of the film’s critical reception.

While Scorsese’s approach certainly stemmed from his left-leaning sympathies, he’s a filmmaker who requires of himself an exhaustive dedication to his worlds whether the task at hand is recreating an Osage tribal council’s or pulling together Mark Wahlberg’s crumpled ties in The Departed. As a result, reviewing Killers of the Flower Moon is a rather moot endeavor. Its stars are in top form because, of course, they are. The extensive run time is well-earned and masterfully executed thanks to Scorsese’s vision and long-term editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. The images are the stuff of pure cinema–the opening sequence, final scenes, and man-to-man meetings between DeNiro and DiCaprio instant centerpieces of a retrospective for a career long overflowing with cinematic milestones. Yes, dozens of movies from Native American filmmakers that are this compelling are always welcome. But Scorsese is still Scorsese, and such projects aren’t mutually exclusive as the film’s race-baiting detractors seem to believe. 

With Killers, Scorsese has done everything he could to maintain the relevance he sustained through his early work with DeNiro and his midcareer partnership with DiCaprio, including bringing his two hypermasculine stars together for the first time. The problem is that the culture industry and its critical class can’t possibly let him do his job. Over the next few months, Scorsese will become the latest victim of the Tom Hanks effect in which a vital thread of our former cultural fabric who tries to make good in the world of identity politics doesn’t realize the futility of the endeavor. Curiously, both chose early 20th-century Oklahoma as their swords to die on.

Killers of the Flower Moon is not, as master contrarian Armond White, pronounced, the latest woke exercise in white man’s burden. Such a culture-war rallying cry is far too simplistic while willfully overlooking the film’s nuance and unimpeachable craft. However, in striving for authenticity and inclusion, Scorsese has ceded the thematic terrain that has made his filmography one of the strongest in the history of American cinema. 

Since his film student days cobbling together Who’s That Knocking at My Door? into his first feature back in 1967, Scorsese has built his narratives around spiritually conflicted characters whose rampant transgressions make them endlessly identifiable, allowing him to implicate his audiences on the way to their own moral reckonings. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Goodfellas’s Henry Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort, and even The Last Temptation of Christ’s titular savior pursue wanton desires by any means necessary. They stir so much controversy because their flaunting of the way things are appeals to their staunchest critics on a primal level. 

But DiCaprio’s aptly named Ernest Burkhart is the outlier. Rather than portray him as a beneficiary of brutality well aware of his actions, Killers of the Flower Moon casts him in the role of simpleton, a WWI cook who tapped into secondhand valor and his tenuous family connection with his powerful rancher uncle. The result is a blunting of the motivations behind his complicity with Hale’s civilized barbarism. A Burkhart as transparent about his deviancy as The Departed and Mean Streets’s gangsters is now simply a step too far. 

The version of Killers of the Flower Moon that forces its core demographic to identify more than it thinks with Burkhart in all his budding supremacist glory would be Scorsese’s ultimate coup–late career or otherwise. But the ecosystem that could produce such a movie is long gone. It’s the reason that, despite serving as a reminder of the power of cinema and the hilarious inefficacy of the federal government, Killers of the Flower Moon never becomes the movie we need. 

Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters.