Goodfellas on the Range
About the new Scorsese film
Honore de Balzac, who as far as I know never set foot on Wall Street or in Oklahoma during the oil rush, is often credited with saying “behind every great fortune is a crime.” I kept thinking of the line – actually a reduction of what he wrote – while watching the movie Killers of the Flower Moon.
As you probably know, Killers is based on a nonfiction book by David Grann. It tells the story of a breathtaking American crime. Or more accurately, a breathtaking series of crimes that involved the theft of wealth from the Osage tribe by white businessmen. And since these crimes also entailed a jaw-dropping number of brutal homicides committed in accordance to a strict but twisted code of behavior, it is easy to understand why this material would draw the attention of our own cinematic Balzac, Martin Scorsese.
Much of the media attention for the movie has focused on the idea that this is a rare Hollywood movie that tells the truth about what happened to the Native Americans. There is no doubt that Scorsese, who tried to make Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee fifty years ago, undertook this project with respect and sincerity. He worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to ensure authenticity and guarantee fair compensation for participants. And he elicits a superb performance from the young Native American actress Lily Gladstone, whose serene presence anchors the story and gives it a female warmth that one doesn’t usually associate with the auteur behind Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas.
The result is the best Scorsese film since The Departed in 2006 – maybe even since Goodfellas, in 1989. It’s also easily the best American studio film in years and a return to full-on malevolent form from Robert DeNiro, now, like Scorsese, 80 years old.
But is it the Great Corrective and redefining moment for stories about Native Americans?
Let’s come back to that.
David Grann’s book tells a story absent from most American history classes. After being forced from their ancestral homes by white interlopers, members of the Osage Nation turned misfortune into great fortune by holding onto many of their “headrights” after oil was discovered on their land in Oklahoma. As a result, a people who had been pillaged and robbed for centuries became the wealthiest per capita community in the world. They won the jackpot of the American capitalist game, fair and square.
Naturally, that could not be allowed.
Congress passed a law requiring that Osage people have appointed financial “guardians” until they could prove their “competency.” And then a tidal wave of murder washed over the territory. Dozens of Osage were found brutally killed or declared victims of unlikely “suicides,” without follow-up investigation. The true story is there was a conspiracy of rapacious white men, led by businessman Bill Hale, to marry into Osage families and then kill the rightful heirs so that Hale and his relatives could inherit the wealth instead. One of those relatives was a young dimwitted former army cook named Ernest Burkhart who married an Osage woman named Mollie Kyle and then took part in plot to poison her while his uncle and compatriots systematically murdered other members of her family to get full control of their headrights.
It’s a darkly compelling tale that Grann largely tells though the vehicle of an FBI investigation, one of the first major ones undertaken by the Bureau, led by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White. But for the film adaptation, Scorsese and his collaborators have shifted the perspective and made Ernest Burkhart, played by DiCaprio, the main protagonist of the film.
From a conventional Hollywood storytelling point of view, it’s a perverse choice. Burkhart is a moral compass with a busted needle. As a character, he’s first kin to Henry Hill in Goodfellas, but without the anchoring journalistic detail provided by Nicholas Pileggi’s excellent book Wiseguy and the sociopathic humor.
I struggled to get traction with Burkhart and the narrative generally during the first part of the film. Scenes flew by too quickly. More important, I had trouble getting inside the love affair between DiCaprio’s character and Mollie Kyle, which is meant to be authentic – or at least as ambiguous as Montgomery Clift’s courtship of Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress. The problem isn’t Gladstone, who is everything you would want in a movie actress – graceful, distinct, and confident enough to be commanding while doing very little. But as long as the movie is (the running time is close to three and a half hours), I still wanted more breathing space for the scenes between her character and DiCaprio’s, to believe there was something real between them.
For me, the movie came alive in the second half when it truly became a Martin Scorsese film. Businessman Bill Hale, played to that point with unctuous old-man charm and Christian sanctimony by DeNiro, drops the mask and becomes one of the great actor’s most frightening monsters. That deeply-carved U-shaped grin has never been more menacing. Having gotten his nitwit nephew, played by DiCaprio, to marry into Osage wealth, Hale then whips his patsy into a frenzy of familicide for profit that puts us firmly into Goodfellas territory. The difference is, of course, that Henry Hill and his associates were mostly killing other thugs. The stakes in Flower Moon are obviously higher, and so is the potential for sanctimony.
But Scorsese is much too clever to fall into that trap. He is our greatest chronicler of the doings of very bad men and his gimlet eye does not fail him here. As the bodies pile up and the murderers turn on each other, this becomes a story about a great American crime and one that Scorsese is uniquely suited to tell. What Balzac actually wrote was “the secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.” And the veneer of respectability has rarely been torn away with as much fury and flair as it is here. Plainly, Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Eric Roth mean for us to think of a recent former president and his associates when witnesses against Bill Hale start getting intimidated and changing their stories to kowtow to power, and the narrative becomes about the brutal business of money and greed. DiCaprio is particularly good in these scenes. He finally seems broken and morally confused enough to be a true Scorsese character, his boyish confidence exploded into shreds.
When I saw The Irishman a few years ago, I thought Scorsese and DeNiro had put their best work behind them and closed the book on a certain impassioned style of American filmmaking. I stand corrected. They’ve taken their mastery to new terrain. Have gun, will travel!
But is this the Great Redefining Native American film?
Let’s say it’s a beginning.
As Killers gains momentum and becomes a carnival of real-life evil, Mollie Kyle and the other Native American characters are inevitably sidelined. I’d be surprised if Lily Gladstone had more than two pages of dialogue in the last hour of the movie. Don’t get me wrong: Scorsese’s film works on its own terms. But it’s just one perspective. Scorsese seems to acknowledge as much with his somber cameo at the end of the film.
I’m eager to hear Native American artists tell their own stories. Because they’ve got some damn good ones. I’m thinking of a great Native American director and screenwriter taking on S.C. Gwynne’s book Empire of the Summer Moon. It tells the astonishing true-life tale of Quanah Parker, the Comanche chief who was the son of a kidnapped white mother. His early exploits make Travis Bickle and the Lufthansa heist gang look like peace-loving pussycats. But in later life, Parker became a wily statesman, a diplomat, and a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s. It would make for a mind-blowing movie or TV series.
But then again, that’s just the opinion of another outsider. And they’ve had enough of that.
Peter Blauner is the author of nine novels, including Slow Motion Riot, winner of an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel from Mystery Writers of America, and The Intruder, a New York Times bestseller and a bestseller overseas. He began his career as a journalist for New York magazine in the 1980s and segued into writing fiction in the 1990s. His short fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories and on Selected Shorts from Symphony Space. He has been a staff writer for several television shows, including Law & Order: SVU and Blue Bloods. His new novel, Picture in the Sand, which spans sixty years and the distance from Hollywood to Cairo, was published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press in January, 2023. It is his first work of historical fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with his wife, author Peg Tyre.
Peter Blauner’s essays at Substack. His website.