Considered the OG of the cinematic universe, visionary auteur Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, teamed up for the first time as a trio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’ Set in 1920s’ Oklahoma, this highly anticipated crime drama film follows the story of Ernest Burkhart and his wife Mollie Kyle from Osage Nation, with the towering and strong presence of his uncle, influential cattle rancher William Hale, always looming over them. It’s clear that Burkhart and Hale are after the Osage tribe’s wealth, thanks to the abundance of oil found in their land.
As more members of the Osage tribe die, some of whom are very close to Kyle, things get a lot more complicated. With powerful performances by DiCaprio, De Niro, Lily Gladstone, and Jesse Plemons, this movie has already found its way to Oscar’s doors as a ‘Best Picture’ frontrunner. With its depiction of historical events and the violent portrayal of the country’s culture, which happens to be Scorsese’s forte, questions arise about whether or not ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is based on true events.
Killers of the Flower Moon is Based on a Non-Fiction Book
Scorsese, best known for ‘The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)’ and ‘Goodfellas (1990)’, bought the rights for the non-fiction book by investigative journalist David Grann, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ for this adaptation. As soon as he read the book in 2017, he knew he had to make a movie out of it. He then set out to do extensive research to truly capture the full story of the Osage murders, the Native American tribe, the investigation that led to the birth of the FBI to capture the murderers, and the secrets to uncover how this tribe came to acquire millions from their land.
Even if the story and characters are based on real people, Scorsese has taken the creative liberty to focus on the narrative that deserves more attention, according to him. He is also backed by the original Osage tribe in his efforts to portray an accurate picture of their struggles. While DiCaprio, known for his roles in ‘Inception (2010)’ and ‘The Departed (2006)’, was initially chosen to play the role of Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White (now being played by Plemons), he realized something was missing.
Digressing from their original plan of focusing on the crime and investigation narrative, Scorsese and Eric Roth also rewrote the script to focus more on the tribe and Burkhart’s character, who became central to the narrative. His complex situation was due to him being an American dedicated to his uncle’s plan of acquiring the wealth of the Osage tribe through conspiracy while being married to a Native American he grew to love. Since this film depicts the greed of the Americans, the origin of the story can be traced to a time in 1865 when the Osage tribe was forced to vacate their homeland. At this point, they were allowed to buy patches of land that were regarded as inhabitable by Americans.
A few decades later, in 1894, when crude oil was found under their land, the tribe became rich overnight, especially since they had also acquired rights to any minerals found in their land. But, the Americans felt they didn’t deserve their wealth and started plotting ways in which it could be snatched away from the tribe. The murders of members of the tribe, orchestrated by William Hale and many others like him, came to be known as the ‘reign of terror’ in the 1920s. Around 60 people were murdered within a decade, calling for immediate attention by investigators, some of whom were also murdered to prevent anyone from unleashing the true story.
Some of these murders of Osage people still remain unsolved, but Hale’s story captured Scorsese’s attention. Robert De Niro portrays the powerful character of Hale, who pretends to be an ally of the tribe as a local rancher, all the while plotting ways in which he can acquire their wealth. His unsuspecting nephew Burkhart gets easily roped in when Hale dangles the money carrot in front of him, explaining how much wealth can be acquired if he marries Kyle. This investigation is believed to have birthed the FBI because of the kind of effort it took to unravel Hale’s plan.
It took plenty of time to find out about Hale’s activities of acquiring wealth from deceased tribe members. When Kyle’s family, including her sister Anna Brown, mother Lizzie, and another sister, died along with her family, all the family wealth passed down to the sole survivor, Mollie Kyle. This is when it becomes crystal clear that Hale intends to murder Kyle as well, so the wealth passes down to her husband and his nephew, Burkhart, which is the only way it can legally be acquired.
Scorsese even met the members of the Osage tribe to gain first-hand experience of how authentic the characters in his movie should be. He agreed to focus on the plight of the tribe rather than introducing a ‘White’ savior to put an end to their troubles. This is why the narrative shifted from the investigation to examining the other central characters, with Kyle’s struggles being depicted in plenty. This is also why Gladstone is already competing for the best actress for this role at the Oscars. Evidently, Scorsese has attempted to do complete justice to the original story of the tribe, but the visual spectacle is also bound to take some creative liberties to push the narrative forward.
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