“I was nervous about the release of the film,” Cote said. “Now that I’ve seen it, I have some strong opinions. 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, [while] not being Osage, I think did a great job representing our people, but 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 [in him]. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s not love. That’s just beyond abuse.”
It’s a provocative comment, and one I mostly agree with despite recognizing the film to be an immense cinematic work. One suspects Scorsese is aware of this too since the nearly three and a half hour film avoids making Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart the full protagonist. But that’s because Killers of the Flower Moon doesn’t really have one. It is a tapestry of victims and victimizers, exploiters and the exploited, Indigenous people and the white faces who murder them. As a consequence, the scope of the film is vast, and honestly a little indulgent in its unwieldiness. This problem could’ve been avoided or mitigated if the film recognized Mollie, and not her husband, needed the best scenes. Yet for large chunks of the middle of the film, we focus on Ernest’s guilt as he slowly poisons his wife, instead of on Mollie’s dawning awareness of treachery.
To be clear, Gladstone is remarkable in the film. A quiet but irrepressible presence in most of her scenes, Gladstone’s Mollie is a laconic woman whose strong will nonetheless dominates every room. Whether Ernest really began pursuing Mollie out of natural interest or because he was encouraged to by his uncle, the reptilian William Hale (Robert De Niro), is ultimately unknowable. It also doesn’t matter given what Ernest did. But the film avoids the question altogether, preferring instead to focus on Gladstone in the courtship scenes. She brings such a disarming playfulness that when she asks Ernest to share some whisky with her, she might as well be telling DiCaprio to prepare to cede the audience’s attention.
Intriguingly, however, DiCaprio was not originally intended to play the man who betrayed Mollie on every moral, ethical, and ultimately intimate level. He was initially pegged by Scorsese to play Tom White, the incorruptible and old school cowboy who in the FBI’s nascent, primordial days might’ve been the first white man to step foot in the Osage Hills without ill-intent for the Native Americans who lived there.
For the record, such a depiction of White is accurate to the history of the Osage murders, and it is one of the defining aspects of the nonfiction book by David Grann on which Killers of the Flower Moon is based. However, that story is structurally a yarn we’ve seen Hollywood eagerly recite decade after decade, even when it was at odds with the actual history of the subject matter, such as Mississippi Burning egregiously crediting the FBI with the success of the Civil Rights movement, or The Help’s story still being told from the perspective of wealthy white patrons.
Perhaps that’s why, according to Scorsese, two years into the process, DiCaprio asked what the hell kind of movie they were trying to make. The filmmaker recently reiterated those details in an interview with The Irish Times where the director said, “Myself and Eric Roth talked about telling the story from the point of view of the bureau agents coming to investigate. After two years of working on the script, Leo came to me and asked ‘Where is the heart of the story?’ I had meetings with the Osage, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s the story.’ The real story, we felt, was not necessarily coming from the outside, with the bureau, but rather from the inside, from Oklahoma.” By choosing to abort the FBI procedural framing, Scorsese and DiCaprio even lost Paramount Pictures as a backer. The studio didn’t want to invest in a film focused on white men murdering brown people, many of them women.