‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Isn’t a Western — At Least Not In the Way You Think

Estimated read time 7 min read

The Big Picture

  • Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film,
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    , promises a deep dive into American history and humanity through the classic Western genre.
  • Lead star Lily Gladstone sees the film as more than a Western, calling it a “great American tragedy” that tackles historical injustices.
  • By involving Osage Nation in production and focusing on the toxic relationship at the core, Scorsese plans to deliver a unique and impactful cinematic experience.

Killers of the Flower Moon, the Oscar-nominated film by Martin Scorsese, was critically acclaimed upon release thanks to Scorsese’s sensational craft and precedent of churning out modern classics. The director is ingrained into film culture unlike anyone else, due to his devout advocacy for cinema as an art form and controversial comments on popular franchise entertainment. With his most recent film, the director appeared to be engaging in one of the most classic genres in Hollywood, and one that was quite formative for him as an artist: the Western.

Killers of the Flower Moon Film Poster

Killers of the Flower Moon

When oil is discovered in 1920s Oklahoma under Osage Nation land, the Osage people are murdered one by one – until the FBI steps in to unravel the mystery.

Release Date October 20, 2023

Director Martin Scorsese

Runtime 206 minutes

Main Genre Drama

Writers David Grann , Eric Roth

Studio Paramount Pictures

What Is ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ About?

Killers of the Flower Moon, based on a true-crime book by David Grann, details the harrowing tale of a mysterious string of murders of Osage tribe members in Oklahoma in the 1920s after oil is discovered in the area, which spawns an investigation by the FBI. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2023 and immediately received overwhelming critical acclaim. Given the story’s context around capitalism, criminal injustice, the dawn of the FBI, and America’s deeply problematic relationship with Native Americans and other indigenous people, the film was naturally set up to be another masterful portrait of the dark roots of America and humanity for Scorsese. Not to mention, it appears on the surface, and by all accounts on film databases and registers, that Killers of the Flower Moon will be his first proper Western.

Martin Scorsese’s filmography appears to be heavily influenced by classic Westerns. In a 1995 documentary produced by the British Film Institute, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, the director dedicates a section of the film to the genre, beautifully articulating its place in the foundation of American history and mythos, as well as the deep personal connection arising from these stories. His reverence for legendary film director John Ford is unmatched, particularly for his often-regarded masterpiece, The Searchers. Through careful analysis and interpretation, one could identify Western elements in Scorsese’s filmography, such as the Midwest gangsters riding into the Old West in Las Vegas and brushing up against local figures of power in Casino, but it feels appropriate that Killers of the Flower Moon will finally allow the director to expand upon his love for the genre.

Lily Gladstone’s Interpretation of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ as a Western

In an interview with Empire, Flower Moon star Lily Gladstone likened Scorsese’s film as less of a Western, and more of a “great American tragedy.” Considering the harsh subject of the film, no one would argue with that title. Gladstone, who was cited as the breakthrough performer amid the titanic dual-presence of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, plays Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose murky relationship with her husband, Ernest (DiCaprio), serves as the heart of the dramatic arc. When elaborating on the public’s rush to judgment when calling the film a Western, she stated “With natives and Westerns, we are so dehumanized that it just kind of feels like we’re part of the landscape – instead of humans that are telling a story.”

Gladstone, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwest Montana and is of indigenous descent, raises insightful awareness of the film’s thoughtful and collaborative relationship with the Native American community. Her comments suggest that the film ceases to be an empty genre exercise for Scorsese. Instead, he is shining a light on a marginalized group of people in a setting that has historically enforced stereotypes. From early reviews and production notes, the film is confrontational towards an ugly moment in American history and is uninterested in the mythology of the new frontier. Before its release, footage from the trailers showcasing vistas and developments of a village in its infancy, envisioned by celebrated production designer Jack Fisk, had audiences’ minds set on a glorious Western epic.

Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio standing together outdoors in Killers of the Flower Moon Related

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Gives Us the Most Evil Martin Scorsese Villain

Both the film’s character and its real-life subject are the definition of pure evil.

While there are complications surrounding a non-Native American filmmaker at the helm of Flower Moon, Scorsese’s involving Osage Nation in the film’s production, notably with consultation on script rewrites that shifted focus away from the FBI’s investigation (which the book is primarily centered on), is uplifting. The principal chief of the Osage Nation, Jim Gray, who was a major consultant on the film, had nothing but illuminating praise for Scorsese’s film regarding its cultural representation. “No White Savior, nothing needed to be made up,” Gray remarked. “The violence is real and the music of the Osage language was beautifully spoken by all of the actors, especially the non-Osage actors.”

Marriage Is Framed Against a Western Setting in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

To the surprise of many, based on preconceived notions from the source material and its genre, Killers of the Flower Moon is primarily fixated on the poisonous relationship between Ernest and Mollie Burkhart. Along with his co-writer Eric Roth, Scorsese was inspired to rewrite the script so that the film is more embracing as a human story rather than a procedural. Speaking about the film when initially told from the FBI Agent Tom White’s (Jesse Plemons) perspective, the director stated “I think the audience is ahead of us. They know it’s not a whodunnit, it’s who didn’t do it.” By all accounts, Scorsese is determined to unpack the layers of capitalist greed and romantic betrayal in place of supplementing the norms of the genre.

The term “revisionist Western” has devolved into an overused buzzword when analyzing Western that demystifies the genre and American history. In certain cases, by cinematic masters like John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood, this title is indisputably applicable. Lily Gladstone’s comments and Scorsese’s intended narrative direction are indicative of Flower Moon as a soulful character study.

What Could Martin Scorsese Bring to the Western Genre?

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon Image via Apple TV+

Throughout his storied career, Scorsese movies concisely compartmentalize weighty topics into a defined perspective. Taxi Driver rigidly follows the life of an insomniac cab operator simmering with rage, but it quietly taps into a post-Vietnam War social decay in the country at a macro level. The Wolf of Wall Street gracefully announces itself as a cynical indictment of unbridled capitalism and the societal glorification of criminals of all breeds in a contained story about one morally corrupt stockbroker. Gladstone stated to Empire that “it was very familiar to see this goofy, exaggerated cowboy sort of a character falling for a really self-possessed native woman.” This dynamic of examining American colonialism through the precarious relationship between Ernest and Mollie is pure Scorsese storytelling.

To definitively classify Killers of the Flower Moon as a Western is fraught. A Western or not, the juxtaposition of the open American frontier with a fateful romance and dehumanizing capitalist greed is transcendent. By cinematic precedent, the genre is designed for artistic inversion and retrospection. However, by lending a pronounced voice to Native American people, which is a rarity in even the most nuanced Westerns, Killers of the Flower Moon stands in a genre of its own.

Killers of the Flower Moon is available to stream on Apple TV+ in the U.S.