SPOILERS AHEAD! This story examines the ending to Killers of the Flower Moon. If you haven't seen the film yet, and don't want the ending spoiled, stop here!
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon, absolutely floored me. Approaching the movie without the context of the book, and without a deep understanding of the Reign of Terror, I found myself holding my breath as I learned this heartbreaking story. Every moment of guttural grief surrounding the Osage murders shook my soul to its core; it sent guilt, anguish, and understanding coursing through me. Essentially, the movie did exactly what it was intended to do: educate and move audiences through a dramatized narrative.
The film takes care to inform viewers of the historical context that had been severely lost to time. There’s a scene where the character of William Hale (Robert De Niro) walks through town and we see him cross a street. Passing right by him, the Ku Klux Klan marches in a parade…white hoods and all. Right behind them, a group of women hold a sign that reads “Indian Mothers of Veterans”. A KKK member cheerily greets Hale and Hale warmly returns the sentiment. They are friends. Nothing seems wrong or out of place to either man at this moment. White supremacy had become so severely embedded in this place and time that the KKK could still garner a friendly smile and pat on the back. A friend of mine later remarked to me how wild it was to realize that the KKK was forming at the same time as the Osage murders. “It really wasn’t all that long ago,” they said.
Killers of the Flower Moon pulls out all the stops to convey not only the appalling manipulation and betrayal of the Osage Nation, but also the egregious acts of physical violence. Sitting amongst a hundred other movie-goers, I remember the moment where the bomb under Rita’s house detonates and the neighborhood gathers to try and save the family. Rita’s (JaNae Collins) body is found in the wreckage, lifeless. Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) delivers the news to Mollie (Lily Gladstone), who is inconsolable. Lily Gladstone’s performance walks off the screen. Her face crumbles as she registers the news and her jaw and eyes melt into raw grieving…it was too real, too horrible. My half-eaten bag of popcorn sat untouched in my lap after that. I wondered if popcorn had really even been an appropriate choice for this viewing.
In the last few minutes of the film, Scorsese switches from telling the story in real time to a live recording of a radio show. The announcer reads the fate of each character, putting on different voices for each one. He tells you who went to jail and for how long, who gets married to who, and so on. There are somewhat goofy sound effects that give the listeners a more “immersive” experience. The whole scene feels like a true crime show. The camera pans to a huge audience watching, in fur shawls and pearls, each on the edge of their seats. They’re holding onto every word… like it’s a spectacle. “Like it’s entertainment,” I thought, “How horrible!” How can this room full of people sit there and not be sick to their stomach? And if they are, how quickly will they move on? Will they have a glass of wine with their friends after and remark on how awful the murders are and move on with their lives? Probably so. Then I thought to myself, “Well, what am I doing right now? Am I any better?” I’m sitting here in an audience just like them, watching a true and harrowing story be made into theatrics. I began to wonder if this movie, just like so many before it, had exploited another deeply traumatized minority for the sake of an Oscar nomination. Then, Martin Scorsese assumed the position of the radio announcer to read Mollie Burkhart’s obituary.
I wanted to gasp out loud when I realized what he was doing —The radio show was not just a narrative device, but a genius close to a film that should have been impossible to end. The timeline of thoughts I had been having throughout the course of the film, while I worried I was distracting myself, was actually what I was meant to think. I was meant to feel guilty about the leisure of watching this story instead of the first-hand grief of experiencing it. I was meant to feel critical of how they were sensationalizing history. I was meant to think, “How could Scorsese take this story and then right at the end…turn it into almost a parody?” And then I was meant to eat my words.
The thing is, this story needed to be told. This story deserved justice. This story deserved the attention of a widespread audience that an esteemed and seasoned director (and white man) like Scorsese could provide. It needed the star power of DiCaprio and De Niro, it needed stunt coordinators and pyrotechnics and the gorgeous cinematography and undeniable editing. It needed to have some sensationalized fiction about it, and yes, it needed entertainment. This realization made me squirm at first — I worried about the intentions of those who worked on the film and, regardless, how it would come across by the end. The ethics of filmmaking can be tricky, especially with this sort of large scale production. After the radio show scene, my mind was set at ease. Scorsese made clear with this last scene his self awareness and commitment to self examination through theatrical storytelling. Scorsese’s adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon reminds us that there are respectful ways to use drama and heightened aesthetics to drive home a point. A master of his craft, Scorsese filled this film with both empathy and creativity to carry this story to the place in our guts where we can mourn it properly. It is quite certainly one of my new favorites of all time.