Trace Element: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon
Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon | Courtesy of Apple TV+

[Please be advised that this essay discusses the ending of the film]

The artist is always hiding somewhere in their creation. That’s one way to think about it, at least. The work is, first and foremost, a reflection of the artist, a self-portrait damning for its flaws, its biases, its imperfection. The work is damning if for no other reason than the fact that the work
is a self portrait. It seems a scrutiny peculiar to this part of the 21st century, though to do the reverse—remove the artist entirely from the work—commits the same mistake in the opposite direction. Of course, it’s the purview of art, of good art, to move. To move emotionally, intellectually, to move with or against the moment in which it’s found. It’s also the purview of the critical observer to take on whatever totality of context and understanding about the art and artist they already retain, or accumulate and decide for themselves what the work means, if it happens to mean anything. 

Martin Scorsese is not a savior of the Osage people. He is not a white apologist. He is not anything more than an interested artist, which itself is no small thing. Long before its release, his film, Killers of the Flower Moonabout the systematic manipulation and murder of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s—fell prey to the kind of overdetermined, frothing skepticism that orbits such charged, barbed, (and often true) subjects which others have repeatedly failed to do justice. Suspicion and doubt were fitting reactions purely on the grounds of the film’s unprecedented scope in the context of an American director known in the wider culture, for better or worse, as a master of gang films and portraits of opportunistic depravity. Of course, put that way, Scorsese seemed especially suited for certain aspects of the material: thugs stalk round every corner. Promises are made. Families are broken. Blood is shed. But indigenous life, as captured with an American lens, has always begun and concluded with trauma, with death and theft. Indeed, formless, constant tragedy seems to be the only depiction that Hollywood, in its long, agonizing trudge toward a nominally expanded, curious view of indigenous life, has ever been interested in. How does one correct it? How does one reshape it? 

These aren’t questions Scorsese hopes to answer. Or rather, they are not questions for him to answer. Instead, Killers of the Flower Moon, adapted from David Grann’s true crime book of the same name, is a tapestry of white complicity, a sprawling epic that is as much about the limits of cinema to ethically dramatize that which can never quite be captured as it is about the events it seeks to capture. It is an engrossing and familiar nightmare. A cursory knowledge of the history of indigenous encounters with the American government and white settlers means there can be no true surprises as to the insipid, evil lengths ordinary people go to cheat, steal, and destroy what was never theirs to take. But Scorsese imbues Killers of the Flower Moon—a film centered around a marriage built on lies and poison—with his shortcomings, laying them bare alongside his gargantuan effort. To do so, it only makes sense that, after the long, difficult task is done, the artist himself makes an appearance. 


One of Scorsese’s many hats is as a film preservation advocate, a true archivist and unabashed connoisseur of seemingly all genres. I first became aware of this fact when the professor of my college horror cinema class screened Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). The film follows a serial killer in London named Mark Lewis who, as he murders his victims with a knife attached to the leg of a tripod, simultaneously films his victims’ final anguished moments. According to Powell, Peeping Tom, which was widely panned and censored upon its release, effectively ended his career. Scorsese had heard of the film in film school, had seen inferior black-and-white prints of it in lower Manhattan theaters, became fascinated, and, in an ironic turn of events, is largely responsible for its reaching a wider audience in its restored, gorgeous form. I thought of Peeping Tom as Killers of the Flower Moon began its coda. 

In the film, more so than its Hitchcockian analogs (Rear Window, Psycho), the audience’s voyeurism completes the narrative circuit. Mark is a stunted man, an aspiring filmmaker and photographer, doling out an exaggerated version of the violence visited upon him by his psychiatrist father, who would perform all manner of behavioral experiments on his son and then film the resulting reaction. The act of filming his murders provides Mark with control, yes, but also the frisson of intimacy and distance, his gaze disappearing wholly into a moment that is both real and manufactured. Spielberg recapitulates this sentiment in miniature in The Fabelmans, in a brief fantasy wherein Sammy Fabelman disassociates, imagining himself filming the devastating effect of his parents’ divorce on his sisters. 

In Peeping Tom, the authorities note the frozen faces of Mark’s victims, a look of horror and despair created via a mirror mounted to Mark’s camera. This is no ordinary mirror, but a small, circular funhouse mirror that distorts and stretches its reflection, leaving Mark’s victims with a chilling final image: not a true representation of themselves, but a kind of abstraction. Speaking about the film and, in effect, about his own philosophy of cinema, Scorsese once said, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. captures the glamor and enjoyment of filmmaking, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates… From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.”

The violation of the camera’s subject can have multiple meanings, but, for my purposes here, it points to the consequences of a choice. What is captured by the camera is a reflection of intention and that intention is not always reparative or linear. It is Scorsese’s choice, for instance, to cast a loving, beatific gaze on Lily Gladstone’s character, Mollie Burkhart, no matter the trial she faces, no matter how close to death she’s brought. In tandem, it is Scorsese’s choice to repeatedly vacillate between Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) proclaiming his wide-eyed, desperate love to Mollie and his dutiful poisoning of her. Violence may be a flippant descriptor to blanket across all of filmmaking, but Scorsese does indeed force a confrontation with his audience in Killers of the Flower Moon. It is a confrontation with Ernest’s obsequious guilt and cowardice, the results of which we follow for so much of the film. With the agonizing, loping passage of time, edited masterfully by Thelma Schoonmaker, atrocities pile up as the density of corruption and callous disregard for life becomes claustrophobically opaque. 

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon | Courtesy of Apple TV+
Courtesy of Apple TV+

This philosophical violence is literalized in Peeping Tom, as it is in a more recent work, Jordan Peele’s Nope, where the eye of an alien, the eye of the audience, is also fashioned as a mouth that consumes. But there are two additional layers to Powell’s film that I kept thinking of in Killers of the Flower Moon’s coda. First is Powell’s casting of one of Mark’s victims: a stand-in named Vivian played by Moira Shearer, who had previously starred as the ballerina protagonist Victoria Page in Powell and Pressburger’s seminal film, The Red Shoes. Vivian even dances for Mark before he murders her, a loaded cinematic echo that renders one of the most sumptuous films ever made, a highlight of Powell’s legacy, down to a moment of opportunistic violence. 

The second is perhaps more obvious. It is not only the role of Michael Powell himself who, in a brief but dazzlingly specific cameo, appears in the film as the progenitor of Mark’s troubles, the specter in whose shadow he will never escape: his abusive, scopophilic father. It’s Powell’s casting of his nine-year-old son as a young Mark.


Oppenheimer would likely have been drawn together in conversation with Killers of the Flower Moon regardless of its release date, but significance can be, maybe even should be drawn from their temporal proximity. In the same way that a certain contingent of films from the ‘70s and ‘80s dramatized the societal downturn and moral cynicism of American life at the time, so too have the 2020s seen the release of films that communicate a collective anxiety about the dim future prospects of the world and its historical antecedents. Nolan and Scorsese’s films both reflexively ponder the implications of its respective subjects being told specifically by these two directors. More than that, Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon lay bare the evidence of their directors working through an arduous process of discerning the projects’ sheer immensity. 

One way of tackling, in this case, colonial nuclear annihilation and indigenous genocide is to reframe how the story is told. Oppenheimer begins with an accelerated montage of tortured genius tropes that eventually gives way to a knotted, even disgusted portrait of a genius incapable of fathoming his own creation. One way of interpreting the film is that Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer is so blinkered by his accomplishments, so horrified and yet so myopic, that, during a triumphant speech following the successful test detonation of a nuclear device, he can only imagine the death of those around him, to say nothing of the countless Japanese civilians who he’ll never see. But to say Oppenheimer can “only” envision the deaths of his white American peers is reductive to the messiness of what Nolan is attempting. 

There is the sense, in the speech scene, that Oppenheimer is focusing on what he has at hand—his peers, his work, his safety within the bounds of the Manhattan Project—crumbling. The screaming, cheering, open-mawed contingent of scientists, military personnel, and their families have never been aligned with his vision, his goals, his capabilities. So it is even more horrifying to Oppenheimer that he finds himself the focus of this crowd’s enthusiasm. Here, Nolan’s authorial presence always feels most acute to me. It’s at this point that a hand is tipped in the direction of panic and fear and it feels channeled. It feels like a point of no return. 

Nolan has never been the kind of director to physically enter the world of his films. Unlike M. Night Shyamalan, who positions himself as a sometimes hyperactive citizen in his own narratives, Nolan’s participation is limited, a captain at the helm observing the crew and minding the heading. The closest he has ever come to self-insertion is in Oppenheimer, where he casts his daughter as one of the hallucinatory victims of Oppenheimer’s destructive creation in the speech scene. It’s an almost unbearably fraught creative choice, a doubling, an overlay: Nolan’s daughter plays a stranger whose death haunts the protagonist; the protagonist has killed the director’s daughter. 

How surprised yet pleased I was when, speaking to the Telegraph about this very scene, Nolan said, “‘I hope you’re not going to make me sound like Michael Powell on Peeping Tom. But yes, I mean, gosh, you’re not wrong. Truthfully, I try not to analyze my own intentions. But the point is that if you create the ultimate destructive power it will also destroy those who are near and dear to you. So I suppose this was my way of expressing that in what, to me, were the strongest possible terms.”


What, then, to make of Scorsese’s coda? In reality, there are two.

Killers of the Flower Moon’s final transformation is into that of a courtroom drama, which allows for the intrusion of some of the book’s more reported flair. Notably, the introduction of FBI agent Tom White (Jesse Plemons), who plays a much larger role in the source material. Grann’s work is accomplished for the sheer breadth of its inquiry, the patient accumulation of facts, lies, and undiscovered truths, unvarnished and told looking out toward America, but there is still the journalist’s remove, the detective’s frenzied search. Killers of the Flower Moon is a true crime account that doesn’t so much bristle as quietly shake its head, rendered with the literary tools of “gripping” historical journalism that turns people into characters and events into scenes. “White found himself wandering through a wilderness of mirrors – his work more akin to espionage than to criminal investigation.” This sentence in itself is its own kind of staging, a heightened, dramatic recollection of the facts. As such, the book feels—and with this story, with this material, feelings are consequential—lurid in its detailed, authorially dispassionate presentation. This isn’t to say the reader feels that Grann is ambivalent; the fact of the book is its own illustration of outrage. But the reader is left with a tragedy that opens out onto the present day struggles and unanswered questions of the Osage. 

By contrast, Scorsese’s interpretation stays firmly in the past. Ernest makes a deal with the FBI, choosing to forgo the strong-armed protection of his evil uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), the architect of the Osage’s woes in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Ernest chooses to testify and in doing so, must state for the record the extent of his complicity and voluntary involvement in Hale’s machinations: murder, conspiracy, collusion, bribery, and manipulation. Key to this confession is the revelation of Ernest’s central role in the murder of Mollie’s two sisters. All for money, all for greed. In a Twitter thread, critic Mark Asch noted that Ernest’s demeanor is that of a man accustomed to being bullied. His uncle’s outlook of racial superiority, shrouded in his elder status amongst the Osage, thus grants Ernest a confidence he has never known before.

Whether or not Ernest truly loves Mollie is anathema to Ernest’s actions. After testifying, Mollie asks him privately if the insulin he administered to her actually contained insulin, or something else. Up until now, their relationship seemed on the mend, just as Mollie herself was finally beginning to walk again after months of poison-induced psychosis. During this sequence, there is the threat that Scorsese will manufacture absolution for Ernest. But his actions speak for themselves, as does Ernest’s weakness. Ernest lies. Mollie walks away.

But the film isn’t over. 

Jarringly, the audience is transported to a 1930s theater where a radio performance of the events we have just seen is itself wrapping up. Red curtains, red lights, shiny pomade, a live band, a rapt audience, and a large sign proclaiming the night’s sponsor, Lucky Strike Cigarettes. We are, in effect, witnessing the way news of what happened to the Oklahoma Osage was disseminated to the rest of the country: as true crime titillation. The white actors, trading spots at the mic to play different characters, bounce up and down from their seats, the whole affair that of a weekend spectacle, date night, an evening on the town. Scorsese sets up a telling juxtaposition: there, they had cigarette-sponsored entertainment, here we have Apple-financed historical drama. While Scorsese’s project is deeply felt, and is really about the very opposite impulse of this radio play, there is still the contradiction of production, of the mass release of a $200M film, of the limits that storytelling can’t breach. 

It is here that the director himself finally shows up. 

In previous films, Scorsese often stepped in, if he did, as a passerby, as an observer. At one point in Killers of the Flower Moon, a delegation of Osage travels to Washington D.C. to entreat the government to investigate the plague of murders in Oklahoma. The delegation gathers for a picture and, off screen, you can hear Scorsese as the photographer rounding up his subjects. But that is Scorsese as an extra. At the end of Killers of the Flower Moon, the director steps on stage as himself. Technically, he’s marked in the credits as the radio show’s producer. But it’s Scorsese who the audience sees. Matter-of-factly, and yet reverently, he reads a short conclusion from a sheet of paper, the focus of these three and a half hours coming back to where his interest always focused: with Mollie. After Ernest’s arrest and release, Mollie then divorced him, succumbed to her diabetes at the age of 50, and was buried alongside her family. Her obituary contains no mention of the murders. There is a version of the film that illustrates these events. But Scorsese can’t conclude this story, moving and enraging and resonant as it is, without acknowledging the artifice in its presentation. In the end, history comes back to what is written on the page. 

Scorsese doesn’t step off the stage. Indeed, part of the gravity of the conclusion of Killers of the Flower Moon is that it cannot end with anything that Scorsese can say. It cannot end with an ending. 

Instead, the film cuts away to its final shot, a present-day celebration ceremony with the Osage. They dance in ever-widening concentric circles, the camera flying steadily higher and higher above them. Killers of the Flower Moon is only one part of their history. The Osage are still here.