Martin Scorsese is breaking down exactly why Killers of the Flower Moon ended up being so focused on the villainous Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
The director spoke about the topic following some criticism the film has received 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 real-life tragedy of the 1920s murders of Osage Nation members after oil was found on their Oklahoma land. It has garnered considerable acclaim from critics. But some members of the Indigenous community have said the story should have focused more on the character Mollie Burkhart (Gladstone) and other Osage impacted by the murders. There has also been criticism that DiCaprio’s Ernest was made to seem overly sympathetic, and shouldn’t have been the film’s main focus. Questions for the group were screened in advance, and they did not take a question about the criticism directly, 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 is based on a 2017 book by David Grann — ended up centering around Ernest. The iconic director first noted DiCaprio was originally going to play the heroic FBI agent Tom White, who ended up being played by Plemons.
“We took the character of Tom White that Leo was going to play and, after a couple of years [of development], we took it to its limit,” Scorsese said. “We felt that, ultimately, a story seen through the eyes of the Bureau of Investigation coming in from Washington to this area to find out who did it was — as David Grann pointed out — it was [more] a matter of who didn’t do it. Once I began to understand more the complicity and how we all may be culpable ourselves 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 speaking 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 these deceptions and betrayals and murders came out of people who really liked each other … Ultimately, we were stuck,” Scorsese continued. “We we really couldn’t get into the the true nature of what this tragedy was, at which point Leo [asked], ‘Where’s the heart of it?’ And I said, ‘Well, the heart is that Molly and Ernest are in love.’ So he says, ‘So maybe I should play Ernest,’ and which point everything turned upside down …. And so the Bureau of Investigation did come in and solve a lot of the issues … but primarily it’s told, as much as possible, from the ground level in which the Osage and the European American were living together.”
Added DiCaprio: “As far fetched as it may seem to others who see this movie — who are shocked at the atrocities that Ernest continues to commit and Molly’s understanding of what’s going on — it’s based on hard evidence and a sense of community from the Osage that in a lot of ways they have not openly talked about before. So here we are, 100 years later, bringing up these these ghosts and the stories from the past in the actual locations and working with direct descendants of this 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 element of all of it, for me, was that I was never alone on set. If I was uncertain about a choice I was making there was not just one but several Osage people in every level of production close at hand. It was great comfort as an actress and it’s also just essential because drawing on the culture in such a vivid way sets the scene.”
The criticism started at the film’s Los Angeles premiere, where an Osage language consultant who worked on the movie, Christopher Cote, expressed mixed feelings about the story’s focus to The Hollywood Reporter.
“As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that,” Cote said. “Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love. That’s not love, that’s just beyond abuse.”
After the film’s was released Oct. 20, Reservation Dogs star Devery Jacobs blasted the movie in a scathing thread on X.
“Being Native, watching this movie was fucking hellfire,” she wrote. “Imagine the worst atrocities committed against yr ancestors, then having to sit thru a movie explicitly filled w/ them, w/ the only respite being 30min long scenes of murderous white guys talking about/planning the killings … I don’t feel that these very real people were shown honor or dignity in the horrific portrayal of their deaths. Contrarily, I believe that by showing more murdered Native women on screen, it normalizes the violence committed against us and further dehumanizes our people.”
That said, Jacobs praised Gladstone’s performance: “Give Lily her goddam Oscar.”
On Tuesday, news broke that Flower Moon will receive receive the Vanguard Award at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival. The Vanguard Award is a group honor “distinguishing a film’s cast and director in recognition of their collective work on an exceptional film project,” according to the festival. Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone will be presented with the award.