Warning! Spoilers for Killers of the Flower Moon follow.
There’s a moment of quiet profundity near the end of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon where Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) is asked point-blank by his Osage Nation wife, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), what was in the “medicine” he’d been giving her for years. By this point, viewers know as well as Mollie does that Ernest hadn’t been giving her medicine at all, but small, steady doses of poison supplied to him by his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro).
Moments earlier, viewers watched Ernest confess under oath to the murders that he helped his uncle commit, as part of a scheme to guarantee that the Osage’s rights to their oil-rich Oklahoma lands would go to them. Their crimes resulted in the tragic deaths of numerous members of the Osage Nation, including most of Mollie’s family. However, despite his courtroom confession, Ernest responds to Mollie’s question by falsely reiterating that all he’d given her was insulin for her diabetes. In response, she simply leaves the room.
The scene reverberates with unspoken meaning — the silence of Gladstone’s exit carrying with it a condemnation matched only by Killers of the Flower Moon’s own, overwhelming sadness over the events of its story. It serves, along with the film’s final scene, as the perfect cap to what might as well be deemed Scorsese’s America Trilogy. Between Killers of the Flower Moon, The Irishman, and The Wolf of Wall Street, the director has made a trio of three-hour epics over the past 10 years that altogether lay bare the sins that have brought the country Scorsese calls home to its current, toxic tipping point.
The Stomach-Churning Con of The Wolf of Wall Street
In 2013, Martin Scorsese returned with his first real masterpiece of the 21st century: The Wolf of Wall Street. A 180-minute black comedy, the film charts the real-life exploits of a stockbroker who told enough lies and committed enough fraud to live a life of abhorrent luxury the likes of which few could even imagine. Overflowing with enough sex, drugs, and unabashed greed to shock even the most cynical of viewers, The Wolf of Wall Street offered the same sensation as a rock musician going electric again. Scorsese had plugged himself back in, turned the amps all the way up, and delivered his most anarchic film since 1985’s After Hours.
When it was released, the movie was initially criticized for “glorifying” the lives of its financial criminals. Ten years later, the film not only seems more relevant now than it did in 2013 but its sequences of lavish debauchery feel even more sickeningly empty. Rarely has Scorsese made as blatant of a visual point as the numerous times throughout The Wolf of Wall Street when he positions his camera behind its stockbrokers’ phone banks as they silently flip off their naive, trusting clients. If we were previously unsure of who was to blame for America’s horrifying wealth gap and increasingly worse economy, Scorsese was telling us to look no further.
The Hollow Victories of The Irishman
Six years (and one Silence) later, the filmmaker debuted another American epic in The Irishman. For the first two of its three hours, the movie feels like a welcome successor to the gangster films he’d previously made with its stars, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. Then the former’s Frank Sheeran shoots his best friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), in the back of the head.
What follows from there is one of the most haunting stretches of any American film of the past 20 years. Viewers are forced to watch as Frank’s life is stripped bare — a process that doesn’t hollow out his existence so much as it reveals how hollow it’s been all along. In the end, he’s left with no family, no loved ones, and not even a house to call his own.
Even after all of his crimes, Frank is forgotten by history — relegated to little more than an old man in a nursing home. He’s left with nothing, but so are we, robbed of the catharsis we deserve by men like Frank, who are desperate to matter, and unconcerned with the moral implications of the violence they commit.
The Reckoning of Killers of the Flower Moon
Now, Scorsese is back with Killers of the Flower Moon. The film is terrifying, and not necessarily because of the violence it depicts, but rather how its murderers conduct themselves. De Niro’s Hale and DiCaprio’s Ernest both insist that they love the Osage and yet they kill them without a second thought because they believe that they can. It’s one of the most chilling depictions of white supremacy in recent memory.
In its final moments, though, Scorsese shifts Killers of the Flower Moon’s scornful gaze away from just its key villains and toward America at large. He turns the film’s story into an over-the-top radio play, which notes that the crimes committed against Mollie and her family were left out of her obituary. Even at its most apologetic, Scorsese argues that America remains, like DiCaprio’s Ernest, incapable of reckoning with its own sins. Together, the endings of Killers of the Flower Moon, The Irishman, and The Wolf of Wall Street only provide further proof of that.
Jordan Belfort was given a minimum prison sentence and the chance to conduct seminars about sales techniques. Frank Sheeran served some time but was allowed to live a relatively peaceful, free life. Forty years after he helped conspire to murder his wife’s family, Ernest Burkhart requested a pardon for his crimes — and was granted it. None of these men believed they were wrong, and none of them were punished like they were.
What makes Killers of the Flower Moon such a powerful successor to The Irishman and The Wolf of Wall Street is how it similarly explores those films’ themes of greed and corruption but ultimately argues that the most dangerous crime of all may be self-delusion. Ernest claims to love Mollie, but how can you care about someone you won’t admit to hurting? And how can America claim to protect its most vulnerable when it repeatedly fails to acknowledge the part it has played in their suffering?
For a famously introspective filmmaker like Scorsese, it’s his home country’s unwillingness to reflect and look inward that seems to break his heart the most.