Killers of the Flower Moon and the Shallow Criticism on Perspective

Killers of the Flower Moon poster with Leo's eyes
Killers of the Flower Moon

Upon its release in October 2023, Killers of the Flower Moon was met with acclaim from both critics and audiences. An adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, it tells the story of the Osage murders in the 1920s.

The picture was praised for its performances, direction and subject. However, there has been some criticism about the way its subject was handled, namely, because the story is told from the point of view of the murderers. The main characters, William Hale and Ernest Burkhart orchestrate and commit murders against the Osage to take over their insurance money. Many felt such a story ought to be told from the point of view of the victims instead.

But is it fair not to assume there’s a particular reason behind this choice? What does the movie gain by choosing to tell its story from the villains’ point of view?

Firstly, it’s a criticism that focuses on the idea rather than the execution. This criticism can be dismissed by trying to understand why Scorsese chose to tell the story the way he did. Scorsese is known for making stories about bad guys. From mobsters to scammers and deranged taxi drivers, Scorsese’s movies rarely feature typical heroes as their protagonists. Most of them are morally bankrupt. But that’s not to say he’s glorifying them. More often than not, his protagonists either get punished or have to face some kind of guilt. Some notable examples of this include Raging Bull, or, more recently, The Irishman. Both movies end with their protagonist being alienated from their closed ones due to their past actions.

And that’s a recurrent theme in his work. His closeness with the feeling of guilt is what makes his movies feel so authentic, and as a result, they feel cathartic for the viewers.

Killers of the Flower Moon does pay tribute to the Osage people and its victims, but it does so in the best way its filmmaker can — by exploring the darkest parts of human psychology. It’s a timeless tale of people deceived by greed and power. Ernest Burkhart, the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his finest performance to date, is so consumed by his love of money that it destroys his family.

William Hale, played by Robert De Niro in an effortlessly great performance, genuinely thinks he can orchestrate these killings and still be revered by the Osage. Similarly, Burkhart doesn’t realise that the murders could ruin his marriage. They both get their comeuppance in the end when they go to jail and Burkhart’s wife (Lily Gladstone), leaves him upon realising his connivance to keep her sick while pretending to take care of her.

Characters face the consequences of their actions, although the film’s dark conclusion is that those murders were then quickly forgotten.

Killers of the Flower Moon was not meant to be a comfortable watch. Its subject is as dark as it gets, and its treatment is even darker. While a movie about genocide is never easy to watch, a movie which shows how regular people can be involved in such killings forces us to see the evil that’s rooted inside all of us and serves as a cautionary tale.

The perspective in which this story was told was a conscious and brilliant choice. It allowed the picture to convey to the viewers what happens when greed takes over and how, sometimes, evil triumphs when massacres are met with apathy. To criticise the movie’s perspective is to fail to understand why an established filmmaker decided to tell a story the way he did. But more importantly, it shows a certain failure to understand what the movie tries to portray.

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