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‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’ Asks You To Sit With Its Contradictions

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from Killers Of The Flower Moon
Image via Paramount

At one point in Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s new film about the Osage Native American community being killed off one by one for their oil money, a heavy thunderstorm hits. At the time, Osage Mollie (Lily Gladstone) is sitting side by side at her dining room table on basically her first date with Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is romancing her upon his uncle’s (Robert De Niro) behest for access to her fortune. The power balance teeters. She has gifted him a Stetson, likely the most luxurious thing he’s ever laid his hands on. She has joked about him with her sisters, who also have a soft spot for white men (much to their mother’s chagrin). Ernest’s not very bright, everyone knows he’s not very bright, but he’s handsome. He just wants some stability, and Mollie can provide it. She is richer than he is, but he is white, with everything that entails in America. 

They have had a long chat, including a detour into her skin color. What color would that be? "My color," she says. But now it’s quiet time. Mollie has brought out some expensive whisky, but even that has got to wait. The storm is powerful, she says, so they must be quiet. But Ernest can’t quite manage it. He speaks. Even though Mollie is Sphinx-like, you can tell she’s charmed by this beautiful idiot. But she is firm. Shh. Silence. The storm rocks the house as these two souls sit side by side—this woman who, along with her people, is being exploited. This man who, along with his people, is doing the exploiting. Love crackles between them nonetheless, all that busyness in their hearts, in our minds, and in the history lining this story in front of us.

This scene came to mind when I saw a red-carpet interview from the Killers of the Flower Moon premiere with Osage language consultant Christopher Cote, in which he articulates his conflicted feelings about the film:

As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people. But this story is being told—this history is being told—almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart. And they kind of give him this conscience and they kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family? That’s not love. That’s not love. That’s just beyond abuse. And I think, in the end, the question that you can be left with is how long will you be complacent with racism? How long will you go along with something and not say something, not speak up? How long will you be complacent? And I think that’s because this film was not made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody not Osage. For those that have been disenfranchised, they can relate. But for other countries, you know, that have their acts and their histories of oppression, this is an opportunity for them to ask themselves this question of morality.

In the days since Killers’ release, I’ve seen Cote’s thoughtful and nuanced response to the film used to dismiss it. Scorsese went colonial, goes a ubiquitous line of criticism.

The reason I keep thinking of that storm scene is because there seems to be a collective inability in our culture to sit in silence without saying something reflexively, particularly when that silence is pregnant with the kind of contradiction art is meant to produce. I know social media doesn’t exactly promote reticence or nuance of any kind, but this appears to be something more widespread. The compulsion to assess films, television series, music, books, anything, really, based on whether they are moral has leaked out of conservative enclaves into the mainstream. And just as equating the art with the artist has always struck me as a strange reduction, so too is equating the politics with the art—bad politics, bad art, good politics, good art. 

It’s hard to parse where this need for prescriptive morality comes from, particularly since prescription is the opposite of art’s intention. Art is intended to provoke questions, not provide answers. This new requirement for clear direction seems to have emerged not just from a culture which is in a constant panic over the prospect of being canceled—no matter how nebulous that threat is—but is also of a piece with the less abstract, more technical processing of art you find in fandom circles. These are places where explicit parameters must be set forth within which the audience then feels permitted to operate. This is an audience that needs rules, or else it doesn’t know how to react.

The question of how much we should ethically evaluate art has been around for about as long as art itself. It has been around so long that both ends of the spectrum have been named: Moralism means that moral value determines aesthetic value; Autonomism means the opposite—aesthetics are evaluated on their own terms without bringing morals into it. Until very recently, modern discourse has fallen somewhere between the two. My feeling (apparently, I am a non-Platonist) is that everything is a lot more porous than theory often allows it to be. Just as art is not entirely separable from the artist, neither is art entirely separable from the audience; neither is the audience entirely separable from the culture around them. 

As transcendent as art can be, human beings in all their moral ambiguity are the ones who create it. And while it seems impossible to isolate all of this, it is doubtless this fluidity which enriches art, which makes it ever more layered and ever more dynamic—and hard to ethically pin down. As a person you can be held to account, but art? How do you hold it to account? This is why censorship has always seemed ridiculous to me, like punishing a piece of paper. Or a canvas. But then, of course, it’s that relationship between the audience and the art that is the most telling—the most vibrant, yes, but also the most exposing. To read art is to be read by it. And the types who censor art are always the last to look in the mirror.

In 2018, Wesley Morris published a sprawling essay in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Morality Wars,” about how culture is now being evaluated for its moral rectitude above all else. The piece starts out with a discussion about Issa Rae’s show, Insecure, and whether it is beyond reproach simply because, as a person of color, Rae should be celebrated for representation alone. “Art might not have the privilege of being art for art’s sake anymore. It has to be art for justice’s sake,” Morris wrote. The result, he argued, was a “culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism.”

Five years on, it seems it is not only the audience that has been trained to look at art this way. Artists are now making art which wears its morality on its sleeve, which trains the audience to expect it, which further encourages artists to be didactic, which further trains the audience, ad infinitum. “TV has shifted from showing us morally ambiguous characters, prompting us to muse aloud whether they’re good or bad, to giving us protagonists who ask the question of themselves, repeatedly, before we even have the chance,” Anna Leszkiewicz wrote, also in 2018, in The New Statesman. She uses The Good Place as a prime example, a show centered on the deliberations over characters’ morality. But if you watch the latest season of Sex Education, that deliberation has become, yes, education. “Navigating conflict and having these difficult conversations, that’s the mark of a true relationship with someone,” the teen school therapist says in the final episode of the series. It’s not that she’s wrong, the opposite, but her rightness is spelled out outside of an actual therapy session in a series originally billed as a sophisticated teen sex comedy. 

We are no longer left to wonder about anything, nor are the characters. We are instead served the correct position on a platter. Don’t worry, we are told, you will know what’s right, because we will tell you. It’s as though the culture has designed a way to preemptively stave off being problematic by giving the answers first.

Putting aside the morally confused responses to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer this past summer and to Scorsese’s new film now, it is noteworthy that these two filmmakers—one of whom can sell out multiplexes off his name alone, neither of them particularly known for prescriptive work—have both chosen to make films about real life men who have caused not just pain, but pain which has informed an entire culture. Both Nolan and Scorsese are working within their own patriarchal traditions, but also within a world which feels compelled to chastise the patriarchy without doing much to remedy it. 

It is then doubly noteworthy that Scorsese inserts himself into his own film at the end—a radio play offers a metatextual epilogue to Killers of the Flower Moon, with Scorsese reading out Mollie’s overly short obituary that elides the murders that destroyed her life. The scene is a recognition of his own complicity in the wiping away of the Osage (both as an American and as a filmmaker) and his attempt to, in his own way, make something of a corrective while also acknowledging his limited ability to do so. While the last shot of Scorsese’s film is a bird’s eye view of the continuing cycle of Osage Nation life in the present day, you could ask, as Cote did, why are the Osage not telling their own story?

But sit with it a minute. You may realize this is not a film about the Osage, but a film about settler America’s relation to the Osage, and, more largely, to the world. Specifically, it’s a film about a country’s colonialist, exploitative, violent, destructive, patriarchal subjugation of the world. This is a story of white America, as Scorsese has always been eager to tell. And just as Scorsese could not tell the Osage story, the Osage couldn’t quite tell this one.

“The work is better when you let the world inform your work,” Gladstone told Variety at Sundance earlier this year, referring to how Scorsese’s initial police procedural about the Osage murders—more closely hewing to David Grann’s book, from which it is adapted—became a love story instead. Scorsese explained to Sight and Sound in more detail why the narrative changed. “We tried to make it more complex, but we found that we’re doing all this work on the law enforcement, the white guys, and the story was happening to the Osage, and so we can only take it up to a certain point,” he said. The script opened up after the filmmaker met with the Osage Nation community, who told him to be careful about putting words into Mollie’s mouth and to not make them victims. Then the granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest herself, Margie Burkhart, spoke up: “You have to remember, Ernest and Mollie loved each other.” 

That’s what clinched it for Scorsese. It’s what made Killers of the Flower Moon what it is now—the idea that the blank slate of Ernest could be filled with his uncle’s manipulation, the way the blank slate of white America is so often filled in with the suffering of others. “There was some decency there,” Scorsese says of the Ernest he created off the Ernest that existed. “But for whatever reasons, the weakness of character is interesting to me. And so he’s weak, and he’s dangerous, but there’s still love there. And that’s kind of disturbing but, at the same time, it’s human. It’s what we are.”

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