October 23, 2023

The Man Who Shot Martin Scorsese

Pietro Bianchi

Still from Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Fairfax, Oklahoma, around 1920: Native Americans with luxury cars, jewelry, fancy clothing, and one of the highest standards of living in America at the time. The white people around them, on the other hand, struggle to get by: they beg to be hired for low-paying day jobs or to help out in exchange for small change; or else they try to cheat the indigenous nouveaux riches with business scams, gambling, and alcohol so as to steal a portion of their impressive wealth. What is this? A (retrospective) utopia of a post-capitalist world? It’s actually one of the opening scenes from Killers of the Flower Moon, undoubtedly one of the most anticipated films of the year, first presented out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival last May to rave reviews and now about to hit theaters in most of the world at the end of October. And indeed, it seems like the story of a world turned upside down, where whites and Native Americans have traded places. It turns out that it was one of the most unbelievable and surprising events in American history. And it is absolutely true.

The Osage tribe, originally from the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, ended up in the 19th century in what was known as “Indian Territory,” a region roughly corresponding to today’s Oklahoma, artificially created to isolate and concentrate various Indian tribes as the white colonization of North America advanced west. It is in this land that, at the beginning of the 20th century, some of the richest oil fields in North America were discovered, rapidly and unexpectedly making some of its inhabitants, like the Osage people, among the wealthiest rentiers in the nation, without them having to do a thing.

How did white settlers manage to seize back the land that had just been given to the Osage by the US government, mistakenly believing that it was worthless? How was it possible for them to steal the oil, a most precious raw material, and use it in the emerging and dynamic American capitalism? It’s one of the most curious and incredible stories of “primitive accumulation” that characterized the early history of capitalism, not very different from how Marx narrated it at the end of the first volume of Capital. Such stories are not confined to the past, they continue to this day in the many struggles that aim to defend indigenous land ownership and fight against the exploitation of natural resources, from Standing Rock to anti-fracking movements. When cinema depicts a general historical event through the lens of a particular story, the trick is always to tie together collective and impersonal processes with individual perspectives and viewpoints, so that the former seems to emerge in and through the latter. So, what is the particular yet also general story that Killers of the Flower Moon wants to tell?

It’s the story of William Hale (Robert De Niro), a landowner in Oklahoma who happens to have property adjacent to the Osage land and sees the discovery of the oil fields as a tremendous business opportunity. But more importantly, it’s the story of his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who’s physically disabled (“something happened in my guts”), and who moves to Oklahoma because, as he claims, he “likes money.” He also likes women, alcohol, gambling, violence, and so on. So how do William Hale and Ernest Burkhart become the protagonists of the seizure of the Osage land, thus making possible the birth of modern private oil corporations?

When Scorsese wanted to portray organized crime in Las Vegas or Catholic missionaries in 17th-century Japan or the history of the mafia in New York, he created a shortcut between the general and the particular, using internal subjective conflicts as an allegory for universal issues. Something different takes place in Killers of the Flower Moon. If the typical underlying “religious” structure of Scorsese’s films (even when they are not about religion) involves using the narrative of sin and the fall as an opportunity for the main character’s redemption through grace (in fact, all the protagonists in his films are variations on Johnny Boy from Mean Streets, as Scorsese himself admitted), this dramatic conflict seems to be almost entirely absent in Killers of the Flower Moon. Ernest Burkhart is too foolish and too one-dimensional to embody any dramatic tension between historical forces and individual existence. For sin to become grace (The Last Temptation of Christ), for the death drive to be elevated to eternity (Raging Bull), for damnation to become redemption (The Irishman), or for betrayal to become fidelity (Silence, but also The Age of Innocence), there needs to be one fundamental ingredient: truth. Latent conflicts must come to the surface, what is repressed must return, destiny must strike the individual who thought they could escape it. Instead, in Killers of the Flower Moon, truth remains hidden until the very end, leaving the dramatic final unveiling unrealized. The epitome is the final dialogue between Ernest Burkhart and Mollie Burkhart, his Native American wife whom he married only to inherit her “head rights” and her land, and whose diabetes he mistreated (partly following his uncle’s fishy medical directives) almost causing her death. Faced with the final opportunity to admit his misdeeds and lies, he chooses to remain silent. It’s unclear whether this is a matter of cowardice or, more sinisterly, he started to believe his own lies. The lack of a dramatic peak—which has not only always distinguished Scorsese’s films, but is the essential element in transforming the subject into a hero and historical or pseudo-historical events into myth—is what makes this film strangely contracted and withdrawn. And it is what disappointed many Scorsese fans who perhaps were waiting for a grandiloquent emotional denouement.

Killers of the Flower Moon is—surprisingly—one of those films where Scorsese ventures into comedic territory, and the dramatic climax always lags behind its full expression. Those who were expecting the Great American Movie which transforms a personal story into a universal myth will be disappointed. Despite its three and a half hour running time and a $200 million budget, it is far from being a grandiose epic—unlike, for example, Heaven’s Gate or There Will Be Blood, to mention other films about white settlers’ primitive accumulation. Instead of a transformation into myth, we find burlesque elements and, at the conclusion of the film, a somewhat silly radio drama which ends up almost trivializing what was a pivotal and dramatic historical event. This event has never been recognized as such and has no place in American mythology, even in a denied or bastardized form. Killers of the Flower Moon, being the story of an erasure, cannot be elevated to the dignity of an epic.

In this film, the genocide of Native Americans does not take the form of massacres, which did occur on several occasions, but rather a series of targeted executions, cooptations, semi-arranged marriages, and small and large swindles, in a mixture of deceit, submission, and violence. Its first consequence was to strip Native Americans of even their status as victims. Perhaps there is something truly ingenious in Scorsese’s restrained and anticlimatic cinematographic form, which is something atypical for his cinema: a gangster movie without the cruelty of gangsters; a mafia story without the bloodbath of Goodfellas; a western without cowboys; and a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh. At one point, even J. Edgar Hoover appears, who this time almost unbelievably stands on the side of the good guys. Perhaps the hallmark of this film lies precisely in its concealed and withdrawn dramatic structure, mirroring the double cancellation of the story of the Osage, where even the traces of repression were hidden and erased. And if a director like Scorsese, who recently turned 80, is able to deconstruct and question his own style and shoot a contemporary and indigenous version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance without any concessions to his own mannerism, it means that in cinema—even today, even for the most sophisticated and disenchanted viewer—it is still possible to be surprised and for a cinematographic event to happen. And this, after all, can only be good news.


Pietro Bianchi is Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Florida. His first book, Jacques Lacan and Cinema: Imaginary, Gaze, Formalisation, was published by Routledge in 2017. He writes film criticism for Cineforum, FilmTv, Doppiozero, and DinamoPress.


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