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Oscar Musings – Killers of The Flower Moon

Killers of The Flower Moon stands up for the oppressed sans any unwarranted sentimentality, writes Srivathsan Nadadhur

Infotainment is a word loosely attributed to several works of art across media but when a storyteller of merit makes the effort to engage as much as he tries to inform and educate, the impact is visceral. Killers of The Flower Moon, octogenarian filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s latest release, is straight as a bullet. While you watch it, you’re filled with remorse, guilt and bitterness.

As Scorsese himself puts it, it’s a story of ‘betrayal of trust between the Osage people and the outside world.’ Simplistically put, the film throws light on the injustice meted out to the Osage people in Oklahoma, in the hands of scheming outsiders who exploited their generational wealth (acquired through the region’s oil deposits).

It not only revisits an insider’s trauma but offers a peek into their way of life and belief system with earnestness. At the heart of it is a twisted love story, between a driver Ernest Burkhart and his wife Mollie Kyle and how the region crumbles in the hands of the former’s cattleman uncle William Hale, a supposedly righteous man. The film is an exploration of human brutality, but it comes from a place of empathy and is committed to being the voice of the oppressed.

William Hale, a self-proclaimed king of the Osage Nation, is no vanilla antagonist. It’s easily the film’s most complex character. He’s deceptive, acts as if he means well, is thick friends with several natives and yet calls them sickly people, finding obnoxious ways to take charge of their lives. He has his kin and kith under his mercy and unabashedly uses it to his advantage.

Caught between the machinations of his uncle and a genuine concern for his lady love Mollie, Ernest is in a complex mess but is no saint either. In a post-release chat, the director claimed that his main challenge was to decide the characters through which he could provide a broader understanding of the times. While the nature of deceit is complex, the storytelling is intentionally linear and uncluttered.

‘When the money started coming (through the oil deposits), we should have known it came with something else,’ claims a tribal head, hinting at an organised crime to rob them of their riches. Mollie, as a woman who’s helplessly watched her sisters and mother die, is the beacon of hope, standing up for her brethren and pleading for justice. Ernest’s conscience, meanwhile, eats him up inside.

Martin Scorsese’s love for flawed characters has been consistently evident from his Taxi Driver days to Killers of the Flower Moon and they’re such a hit with crowds because he doesn’t judge them for their choices. The absence of overt sentimentality in the treatment ensures a riveting character and cultural study. The dialogue is snappy and witty, even as the mood is morose and tense.

The real testimony to the filmmaker’s craft is the depiction of the contrasting interpersonal relationships between the oddball characters. It underlines that human behaviour may not be necessarily consistent. The creative choice to end the film as a radio play brings an unexpected liveliness to the proceedings, altering its aftertaste without diluting the story’s emotional core.

The director’s love for the ambience comes alive through the fluid, atmospheric cinematography, the vibrant costumes, the music score and the production design effortlessly transporting the viewers to the 1920s US. The linguistic exchange between English and the Osage and the sharp, innovative edits embellish the film’s holistic appeal.

The performances of all the leads – Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone – are refreshingly different in terms of their approach. If Robert De Niro warrants your attention with his authoritative screen presence, DiCaprio’s portrayal rightly reflects Ernest’s moral ambiguity. Lily, as a mute witness to generational trauma, is a symbol of strength and vulnerability at once.

This was a true story that was begging to be adapted for the screen but had to be told responsibly. Our primary concern was about an outsider telling our story, Osage Nation’s principal chief Geoffrey Standing Bear shared recently. Perhaps they overcame such apprehensions due to the director’s inclusive, collaborative approach.

(Nominated for the Oscars across 10 categories, the film can be streamed on Apple TV and rented on Prime Video)


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