Martin Scorsese explains why exactly Killers of the Flower Moon was ultimately so focused on the evil Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The director spoke about the subject after some criticism of the film from the indigenous community. During a virtual press event Wednesday, Scorsese was joined by stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons.
The Apple TV+ film tells the true tragedy of the killings of Osage Nation members in the 1920s after oil was discovered on their land in Oklahoma. It has received widespread acclaim from critics. But some members of the Native community have said the story should have focused more on the character Mollie Burkhart (Gladstone) and other Osage affected by the killings. There has also been criticism that DiCaprio’s Ernest came across as overly sympathetic and should not have been the main focus of the film. Questions for the group were pre-screened and they did not directly answer a question about the criticism, but Scorsese and DiCaprio still touched on some of the issues raised.
Scorsese first explained how the project — which was co-written by the director and Eric Roth and based on a 2017 book by David Grann — ultimately revolved around Ernest. The iconic director first noted that DiCaprio was originally set to play heroic FBI agent Tom White, who was ultimately played by Plemons.
“We took Tom White’s character that Leo was going to play and took it to the extreme after a few years (of development),” Scorsese said. “We felt that a story, seen through the eyes of the Bureau of Investigation, which came to this area from Washington to find out who did it, was ultimately – as David Grann noted – a matter of who it didn’t do it. Once I started to better understand the complicity and how we can all be to blame in life… and the fact that I got to know a lot of the Osage people because I kept going back to Oklahoma, and I kept hearing stories and they kept talking about how the families are still there.”
He recalled how Margie Burkhart, the great-granddaughter of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, noted that her great-grandparents had been in love.
“A lot of this deceit, betrayal and murder came from people who really liked each other… In the end, we were stuck,” Scorsese continued. “We really couldn’t get into the true nature of what this tragedy was, and at that point Leo asked, ‘Where is the heart of it?’ And I said, ‘Well, the bottom line is that Molly and Ernest are in love.’ So he says, “So maybe I should play Ernest,” and at that moment everything turned upside down…. And so the Bureau of Investigation stepped in and solved a lot of the problems…but mostly it’s told as much as possible from the level at which the Osage and the European American lived together.”
DiCaprio added: “As far-fetched as it may seem to others who see this film – who are shocked by the atrocities Ernest continues to commit and Molly’s understanding of what is going on – it is based on hard evidence and a sense of community the Osage that in many ways they haven’t talked about openly before. So here we are now, 100 years later, bringing up these ghosts and the stories of the past in the actual locations and working with direct descendants of this tragedy.
And Gladstone noted, “It was a different culture. It was a different time. It was a different period. But the most important thing for me was that I was never alone on set. If I was unsure about the choice I made, there was not just one, but several Osage people at every level of production nearby. It was a great comfort as an actress and it’s also just essential because tapping into the culture in such a vibrant way sets the tone.”
The criticism began at the film’s premiere in Los Angeles, where an Osage language consultant who worked on the film, Christopher Cote, expressed mixed feelings about the film’s story focus. The Hollywood Reporter.
“As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from Mollie’s perspective and what her family experienced, but I think it takes an Osage to do that,” Cote said. “Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job of representing our people, but this history is almost told from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they give him some kind of conscience and show that there is love . But if someone conspires to kill your entire family, that’s not love. That is not love, that simply goes beyond abuse.”
After the film was released on October 20, Reservation Dogs star Devery Jacobs blasted the film in a scathing thread on X.
“As a Native, watching this movie was hellfire,” she wrote. “Imagine the worst atrocities committed against the ancestors of the year, and then having to sit through a movie explicitly filled with them, with the only respite being 30-minute scenes of murderous white boys talking about the murders/killing the plotting murders… I don’t feel that these very real people were given honor or dignity in the gruesome portrayal of their deaths. On the contrary, I believe that putting more murdered indigenous women on screen normalizes violence against us and further dehumanizes our people.”
That said, Jacobs praised Gladstone’s performance: “Give Lily her damn Oscar.”
The news was announced on Tuesday Flower Moon will receive the Vanguard Award at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival. The Vanguard Award is a group award “that distinguishes the cast and director of a film in recognition of their collective work on an exceptional film project,” according to the festival. Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone will receive the award.