Killers of the Flower Moon: A Mythological Analysis


Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is one of his greatest movies, maybe his best. That is saying something in a career marked by masterpieces. The film received ten Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, best actress, and best supporting actor, with an odd skip over best actor. The film is based on David Grann’s 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and deals with a shameful period in US history, the murder by white people of Osage tribal members to steal their oil wealth.

This is not a review of Killers of the Flower Moon but an exploration of its mythological structure. The film’s very title sounds mythological. In Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories (1994) I wrote about American movies as a primary reservoir of American mythology. Myth has a bad reputation, commonly understood as untrue, false, or an outdated way of viewing reality. In the sense in which I am using it, myth refers to stories we tell to understand basic, conflicting realities of life. Myth attempts to resolve conflicts, at least in narrative.

Life’s primary irreconcilable conflict is death. Life ends. Most cultures tell stories to resolve this conflict. The Christian tradition tells stories about eternal life. Native Americans tell stories about returning to mother earth. Hindus tell stories about an endless cycle of rebirth, Samsara.

Myth works by indirection. Looked at directly, the conflict between life and death cannot be resolved, but from one or two steps away it can be examined and overcome. Stories of life after death or bravery in the face of death allow a way around the fact that the body dies. Narrative resolves conflict by a sleight of hand. The conflict is still there and real, always threatening, but a story hides the conflict and thereby resolves or overcomes it.

The US was founded on violent acts of replacement, even genocide. The land was not empty when white people arrived but full of diverse peoples and advanced civilizations that were erased in the name of Manifest Destiny, God’s will. Yet we view ourselves as peace loving and the inventors of freedom. Our mythologies have effectively hidden this open wound.*

Most western movies, cowboy and Indian stories, depict the settlers’ heroic efforts to tame the wilderness and fight off the savage Indians to create a good life. The story mythically justifies and hides the violence done to Native peoples and their land. The power of myth lies in its ability to make the unnatural appear natural—the way things should be and are. Naturally the uncivilized, savage Indians should be replaced by the civilized and civilizing white peoples. The land was empty, going to waste, and was ours for the taking. Exposing myth as myth, that it is untrue, produces cognitive dissonance, alienation, and often anger. As a professor of New Testament, I experienced this in my students each time I taught Introduction to the New Testament.

Mythical Plot

Scorsese is not afraid to look at the dark side of American life and has long used mob movies to comment on it. In many of his films, the mob acts out a version of American capitalism. Scorsese’s first commercial success, Mean Streets (1973), features the mob theme complete with a Christ figure. Other significant films also pick up this theme, among them Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990), and The Irishman (2019). Goodfellas, surely one of Scorsese’s masterpieces, is bookended by his The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Goodfellas pictures pure evil, while The Last Temptation of Christ pictures pure good.

Killers of the Flower Moon condenses the story of Osage tribal members’ murders down to three people: Mollie Lyle (Lily Gladstone), Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and William Hale (Robert DeNiro). Mollie is an Osage woman with headrights (oil rights). Ernest, a white man back from WWI, courts and marries her. His uncle Hale insists on being called “King,” which defines his character.

The film incorporates multiple genres. King Hale is mobster boss in a gangster movie; the crime story features multiple murders; the newly organized FBI runs the investigation in a detective story; at times the movie feels like a documentary of Osage life; and finally, it’s a love story. Scorsese masterfully blends these genres but the love story between Molly and Ernest forms the film’s narrative arc.

Scorsese turns away from the book on which the film was based in one crucial respect: The book’s subtitle, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, invites a crime drama with the FBI coming to the Osage’s rescue. Instead, Scorsese focuses on the love story between Mollie and Ernest, a shrewd and magical move. As Scorsese has said, “Ernest and Mollie were the key. It’s all based on trust and love, and we see that being compromised and betrayed. And what’s the motivating factor? Always wanting more: more land, more money.”

From a mythical perspective, the plot is simple: the discovery of oil on their land has made the Osage fabulously wealthy. White people want to steal their wealth. That is the fact that myth must hide.

Three Characters

Mollie is the film’s moral center, in a first-rate performance by Lily Gladstone. With few lines, her presence is compelling and illuminates the film. She wears her Osage blanket like a royal robe, wrapped in dignity. When Ernest asks what color she is, she replies quietly but with pride, “My color.” Although she functions as the moral center, the film views her from a modest distance, limiting the viewer’s access to her subjectivity. Her grace, integrity, and humanity shine through.

The film does not focus on the Osage nation itself but its people stand in the background as powerful witnesses. Scorsese depicts the Osage, their culture, and customs, with dignity, reserve, and distance.**

Hale, king of the Osage Hills, is Mollie’s polar opposite. A wealthy rancher, he passes himself off as a friend of the Osage, whom he says he admires as the best people in the world. They also honor him. But he plans to steal all their wealth. He is an American type, a rags-to-riches self-made man, a con artist, and a Bible quoter.

Hale’s nephew, Ernest Burkhardt, newly discharged from the army, comes to his uncle for help. Hale tells him to call him “King.” Ernest has no particular skills; he was a cook in the army. But he has his good looks and charm. His uncle lays out a plan. The Osage are rich and if Ernest marries an Osage woman with head rights, he gains control of her money. Ernest agrees to the plan because, as he says with a wry smile, “I do love money.” Mollie becomes his target.

Ernest courts and marries Mollie. He moves in with her, her mother, sister, and their white servants. Ernest and Mollie soon have two children. Mollie’s mother suspiciously wastes away, then her sister and other Osage are murdered. King Hale’s scheme is moving ahead.

Mollie does not remain passive in the face of all the killing. After pleading in vain with the Oklahoma authorities—they are complicit in the mayhem—she travels to Washington, DC, with an Osage delegation to petition the government. The newly formed FBI sends an agent with a team to investigate. Gradually the agent uncovers what is going on. Arrests and trials follow.

In courting Mollie, Ernest actually falls in love with her and, tragically, she falls in love with him. Their love is real and deep. But Ernest also loves money. His uncle, King Hale, gradually involves him in crimes and murders, including the murder of Mollie’s sister.

Mollie has diabetes. King Hale arranges for her to take the newly discovered insulin to control her diabetes, an example of his apparent generosity and support of the Osage. But the insulin is mixed with poison, which Ernest administers. Mollie begins to waste away.

Myth offers Ernest as a potential mediating agent between the opposites of Mollie and King Hale. We view the story through Ernest, a moral blank. He shows no awareness or consciousness of what is happening. His uncle’s murderous schemes continually suck him in, seemingly unaware of the moral consequences. Does Ernest know he is poisoning his wife? We think he does but are not sure. Through her love Mollie offers Ernest his one opportunity for redemption, the sought-after mythical mediation. But the FBI breaks the case and Ernest and King Hale are arrested. Ernest does not seem to see what is happening around him. This argues that whites, too, are blind to the outrages they have committed. Like Ernest, they are morally blank, living in false innocence.

Unmasking Myth

Killers of the Flower Moon is an anti-mythical film. Scorsese refuses to reinforce the American myth of the entitled while savior. Instead, he exposes the betrayal and murder at the heart of the American story.  

At the film’s conclusion, the scene shifts from trials of Ernest and Hale to a group of white actors in a radio drama about the Osage murders, the very story the film has just told. The shift is abrupt and jarring, even a bit inappropriate with its carnivalesque atmosphere. Has the whole film with its serious atmosphere been only an old-timey radio show? Is the movie simply entertainment? In the radio version, the narrative reverts to the crime story genre, celebrating the FBI’s triumph and sponsored by Lucky-Strike cigarettes. Myth restores equilibrium, putting everything back in place.

Then Scorsese himself steps out, breaking through the cinematic illusion, to tell the audience what happened to Mollie, her real-world obituary. Scorsese himself bears witness to this tragic story. Scorsese ensures that his viewers know they, like him, are involved.

Killers of the Flower Moon delivers more than an entertainment myth. It exposes reality and its viewers’ mythical narratives, revealing the murderous heart of white America’s destruction of first peoples, their wealth, and their lands. Once unveiled, there is no way to put that myth back together.

A Personal Note

I live in Oklahoma where the story took place and frequently go birding at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the heart of Osage lands. I make my home in Tulsa where, in 1921, whites looted, burned, and destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood, or Black Wall Street, as it was called then in recognition of its prosperity. Killers of the Flower Moon depicts a scene in which a grainy, black and white newsreel of the Tulsa Massacre plays in a theater while viewers remark that the Osage killings are just like those in Tulsa. Proud white Sooners*** have a great deal for which to repent, although vigilance against wokeness keeps the memory of both the Tulsa Massacre and Osage murders out of polite company and most of the history books. 

I fear that this film will be dismissed as a local or Native American film. Killers of the Flower Moon exposes white America’s originating myth, making a lie of everything we stand for.  



* Two scars mar America’s beginning: the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Jill Lepore in These Truths: A History of the United States (2018) argues that both began with Christopher Columbus and remain at the center of American life to this day.

Russell Cobb in The Great Oklahoma Swindle: Race, Religion, and Lies in America’s Weirdest State (2022), Oklahoma book of the Year, argues, “A swindle was at the heart of Oklahoma’s state-building project. From the massive legalized theft of Native land in the early twentieth century, to a decades-long conspiracy of silence about one of the country’s worst acts of racial violence, … the state of Oklahoma was built and is still maintained on a bedrock of lies.”

** Scorsese involved Osage people in the film at all stages and tribal leaders and members have spoken positively of the experience and the resulting film. Other indigenous communities have been divided.

***Sooners is a nickname for people who live in Oklahoma. Originally it designated settlers who illegally laid claim to recently vacated Indian territory before it was opened to the Land Run of 1889. 

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