Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon Will Explore Darker, Uglier Side of Westerns
The first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon offers only a hint of the Old West depravities and horrors that are to come.
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. This striking factoid is what journalist and author David Grann uses to begin his book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and it works on two levels: First it is a table-setter in which we can contextualize a unique moment in history where members of the Osage Nation were driven around by white chauffeurs and their children were sent to study in Europe. Secondly, it begs the reader to wonder why, exactly, is that not the case today?
The first trailer for Martin Scorsese’s long-anticipated film adaptation of Grann’s nonfiction book leans more directly into that latter sense of foreboding. It presents a world that might just be dancing on a knife’s edge. In fact, the first thing we see in the trailer is Osage men leaping in the afternoon sun, joyous after discovering they hit an oil reserve rich enough to start vomiting black gold into the sky. Here is the source of the Osage’s newfound fortune. After being boxed into partitioned off land by an expansive United States government, it turned out the Osage were cornered into one of the richest oil reserves in North America.
Hence the rest of the Killers of the Flower Moon trailer, which sees the white vultures descend into what some in the eastern press scoffed was the last wild remanent of the Old West—and one where Native Americans held the power. Much of our first teaser focuses on Leonardo DiCaprio as Ernest Burkhart, one of the many white men who comes to Osage land in order to find wealth. At least he finds love too. However, if the book is anything to go by, the true main character will not be Ernest but his wife Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone). Even without any lines she is already the soul of the trailer.
It is Mollie who eventually feels compelled to invite a proto-FBI into her family’s lands after, one by one, friends, neighbors, and extended family members start dropping dead under mysterious circumstances. Slowly, it becomes clear folks are being murdered for no explicable reason. Yet one thing is clear: only the indigenous people are being slaughtered, even as more white entrepreneurs arrive almost every day off the train.
Without giving anything away, this story is darker than even the trailer lets on with its chilling final note wherein Ernest, talking to one of his children, asks, “Can you spot the wolves?” The teaser then cuts to a coterie of wealthy white captains of industry seemingly prospering on Osage land.
Scorsese has previously described the film in the press as a Western, yet that might be simplifying the matter. Historically, Western films have depicted the conflict between white American settlers and native peoples in either explicitly racist terms or, at the very least, as a bittersweet clash of cultures. In the last 50 years, most Westerns have outright avoided either telling stories of a conflict that led to the subjugation and deaths of untold thousands—or they turned it into a white savior narrative like Dances with Wolves (1990).
Killers of the Flower Moon takes place after “the West was won.” Native American communities either assimilated or separated from the American culture that sprawled from sea to sea. Which is why this film will be so much more unsettling than Westerns about what happens when white American culture crosses paths with Native Americans on a remote frontier. Here is a film about a tribe who got wealthy by playing by white society’s rules. And yet, the coldness in the eyes of many of the white faces staring at Mollie in the trailer suggest some folks don’t care about rules when the alleged natural order of things has been turned upside down.
Killers of the Flower Moon also stars Robert De Niro, Jesse Plemons, Tantoo Cardinal, Brendan Fraser, John Lithgow, Cara Jade Myers, Janae Collins, and Jillian Dion. The film premieres next week at the Cannes Film Festival and will open in U.S. theaters on Oct. 6.