Martin Scorsese’s new film, Killers of the Flower Moon, recounts a disturbing real story about the killings of a Native American tribe and the chilling conspiracy behind them. One of the most anticipated movies of 2023, the film premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival and created quite a buzz, per Hollywood Reporter, from the unanimous critical acclaim to the standing ovation for Scorsese and the main cast, which includes two of the director’s long-term contributors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro, and exciting new faces such as Lily Gladstone and the Oscar winner Brendan Fraser.
Update October 24, 2023: In honor of the newly released Killers of the Flower Moon, this article has been updated with more chilling facts about the real story behind the film.
Killers of the Flower Moon is based on a shocking book written by journalist David Grann and published in 2017. The book is centered around the mysterious serial killings of key members of the Osage nation, which became the richest people in the world per capita after petroleum is found under their land. Grann unravels the revolting conspiracy that nearly destroyed the entire tribe, exposing the greed and the wickedness of influential white men and the irresponsibility of authority when dealing with Native American affairs.
The Conspiracy That Inspired Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon
Grann’s book covers the story of the Osage murders, also known as the reign of terror, and their consequences, with a compelling authoritative tone, mostly focused on the factual information Grann gathered from FBI reports and other archival material disclosed recently. For this reason, the book offers an in-depth look at the life of the Osage tribe and the agents designated to investigate, while the perspective of the perpetrators is addressed only in the background. On the other hand, Scorsese takes advantage of the speculative magic of movies to blend suggestive facts with real information, following the side of the villains with profundity. Scorsese’s innovative cinematic vision delivers an impactful movie that shows both sides of the same coin, which makes audiences so excited about Killers of the Flower Moon.
The conspiracy that inspired the movie starts when an exorbitant amount of petroleum is discovered under the seemingly worthless land conceded to them by the government. As wealthy, influential men stacked up in the region to get a taste of the oil-rich land, the Osage quickly became the richest nation per capita in the world, driving around on chauffeured cars and fur coats — however, the government quickly established strict laws to unfairly control how the Osage spent their fortune. It didn’t take long before what seemed to be a gift turned into a curse as a wave of mysterious deaths overtook the Osage tribe. The catalyst for the disturbing case was the death of Anna Brown, murdered in cold blood with a gunshot to the head.
Anna was the sister of Mollie Burkhart, a kindhearted Osage who was inevitably at the center of the conspiracy. After years of negligence on the local and state authority’s end, federal agents were called in as the FBI began to take shape. The investigation led to a shocking truth: the murders that surpassed 20 confirmed Osage dead were orchestrated by the wealthy rancher William Hale, so-called “King of the Osage Hills.”
To make things worse, he was assisted by Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband, and other acquaintances who had always been close to the family that took the hardest blow, not to mention the other seemingly unrelated killings. Mollie herself was the victim of a slow poisoning supervised by her own husband. Grann concludes his retelling of the conspiracy by claiming there’s much more dirt underneath the surface of the case, with many Osage murders left unsolved and plenty of evil men who got away unscathed.
The Real Characters vs. The Main Cast
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio play the ruthless William Hale and Ernest Burkhart, respectively as they plot the disturbing conspiracy against the Osage tribe. Hale was one of the most influential men in the Osage hills and the head of the scheme, manipulating his nephews Bryan and Ernest into turning against the Osage and getting ahold of their fortune. Hale was cold and sophisticated, maintaining his condescending attitude even after getting a life sentence. With his power and influence, Hale would’ve probably walked out of his trial a free man if it weren’t for Ernerst, who pleaded guilty to his offenses.
Mollie Burkhart, played by the talented Lily Gladstone, was forced to witness her dear family members taken from her one by one, and the father of her children betray her in the worst possible way. As all of her relatives and friends died around her, Mollie was the most tragic victim of the conspirators. Additionally, she was receiving small doses of poison to ensure her death wouldn’t arouse any suspicions. In the end, the perpetrators were stopped, and Mollie survived, leading a normal life with her remaining children, but at what cost?
Jesse Plemons takes over the role of Tom White, the head of the team of federal agents that cracked the case. While the agent is the closest thing to a “protagonist” in the book, since Grann spends a long time covering White’s strategy to gather evidence and ensure the perpetrators are judged fairly, White has a significantly smaller role in the film. The book offers an in-depth retelling of the birth of the FBI, although Scorsese decides to focus on the chilling details of Hale’s conspiracy from another perspective. The common goal was, however, to tell the story of the killers in the most authentic way possible and to stay faithful to both the historical and the personal sides of the story.
The Guardianship System
Grann was also faithful to the economic system that was adopted at that time, called The Headright System. It mainly consisted of giving land to settlers, which is how the Osage gained their lands. A few years later, however, when they discovered the oil fields under their reservation, the U.S. government put a strict system of guardianship in place, which stated that any Osage deemed “incompetent” or “unfit” to use their money was assigned a guardian. The guardians used to have full control over the funds. They withheld money from their rightful owners, and there were reports of stealing as well.
Mollie was one of the Osage deemed unfit to have control over her resources. The movie shows a scene of her visiting her guardian to ask for her own money to pay medical bills. The newfound wealth of the Osage people attracted a lot of jealousy among the white settlers of Oklahoma, who believed in their natural right to be the sole owners of the country’s riches and money. The popular press backed these sentiments by portraying the Osage as lazy and ignorant people who lacked the intelligence and talent that would put all this wealth to good use.
The press also juxtaposed the Osage tribe’s extravagant lifestyles of expensive cars and jewelry with their lack of work ethics. This faulty, scandalous media coverage created a great narrative and the most suitable excuse for the government to put its hands on the tribe’s wealth. After reaching a consensus that the childish, ineffectual, and helpless Osage were incapable of managing their own money, Congress mandated that they were to have their assets “protected” by court-appointed guardians.
The movie does not adopt this politically and economically motivated perspective. Instead, it portrays the tribe as intelligent, normal people worthy of having full control over their money just like any citizen. In fact, Grann tacitly exposes not just the conspiracy around the murders but the cultural and ideological conspiracies meant to keep this tribe from having full financial independence.
A Controversial Trial
The movie’s ending that restored our belief in justice is part of the true story. In fact, both in reality and in the movie, it was Mollie who actively sought justice and pleaded for an investigation to be opened in regard to the murders of her loved one. Otherwise, because of prejudice, the murders would have been completely ignored. Hale and Ernest were arrested in January 1926 and stood trial for being part of the conspiracy to put a whole tribe underground in order to make insurance profit. Ernest confesses to his involvement in the murders of his wife’s family members and accuses Hale of being the mastermind behind everything. He also identified local thief John Ramsey (Ty Mitchell) as Henry Roan’s killer.
Hale, being the obstinate, proud man that he is, refuses to go down without a fight. He accuses Agent White of resorting to violence like death threats and electrocution in order to extract confessions. This claim put a strain on the legal proceedings of the trial. This is reflected in the movie when Hale sends word to Ernest to deny the truth of his confession and threatens to kill him when he refuses to do so.
Hale’s sharp lawyers successfully appealed three trials, leading to a fourth and final trial in which he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to a lifetime in prison. De Niro masterfully plays Hale’s real-life calm and composed attitude while standing trial. In August 1926, a reporter wrote, “Should Hale be given a death penalty? Some say he will help the executioner adjust the rope around his neck and will go to his death with the smile that seldom leaves his face.”
After 18 years in prison, Hale and Ernest were finally paroled, despite huge Osage protests, but they never regained their wealth. The movie’s sensational depiction of the murders, the trial, and the private marriage between the victim and the perpetrator did not keep the movie from being factual in its rendition of the events.
Killers of The Flower Moon is the kind of movie that beautifully mixes the art of filmmaking with the harsh, stranger-than-fiction intricacies of real life. The audience appreciates a real-life story told well, and this is evidenced by the strong word of mouth and impressive box office intake during its opening weekend.