Ernest Burkhart and his wife, Mollie, née Kyle. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In spring 2021, a photo still from Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon went viral. The image features the film’s protagonists, Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), seated at a table, having just finished a meal. The table is Mollie’s table, in her home, in Osage County, Oklahoma. The larger setting is one of the most insidious criminal conspiracies in American history, a period known as the Osage Reign of Terror, wherein the white cattle rancher William King Hale colluded with associates, including Ernest, his nephew, to steal Osage oil fortunes. Sometimes this scheme involved white men marrying into Osage families and then sometimes murdering their new lovers. In the photograph, Mollie gazes over at Ernest, who’s looking up at the ceiling. In the frame, she is a Mona Lisa in semi-profile, a muse of multitudinous moods. What is that inscrutable expression on her face? Is she being coy? Flirtatious? Is that an inquisitive look? Or one of bemusement? Is she laughing at her beau, or at her predicament—the condition of falling in love with a racist doofus she knows is mainly interested in her money? (Oof.) The still became a meme when the New York Post tweeted that DiCaprio was “unrecognizable” in character; the replies underlined the actor’s utter recognizability. This still, an object of public fascination more than two years before the film’s general release, became a meme as social media users poked fun at the Post, but the meme cycle also enabled viewers to meditate on the interpersonal dynamics in the photo, dynamics they would be unable to view in context. The image is a distillation of the film’s central mysteries, and reading it is training for assessing the big questions at the heart of the movie: What does she see when she looks at him? What should we see when we look at them?
It’s fitting that a photograph was the film’s first offering, because Scorsese is always calling attention to the photograph as a marvel, and as an object, in his work. The director’s signature credit line— “A Martin Scorsese Picture”—is delightfully archaic. The phrase is redolent of the studio system, painted sets, and actors in redface. This is a picture that is partly about making pictures, and the tensions therein. Within the film’s first moments, the audience witnesses a succession of murders of Osage citizens. The deceased are posed with piety, stretched out on their beds, decked out in their best, arms crossed against their chests; this sequence, and some other shots interspersed throughout the film, recall James Van Der Zee’s The Harlem Book of the Dead, which features the legendary portraitist’s stately photographs of funeral pageantry. And then there are the more direct references to image-making, mostly in montages of vernacular photography: souvenir photos at rodeos; roustabouts posing before a cameraman; wedding portraits; home video–style clips; newsreels of major events, including of the discovery of oil on Osage land, of members of the Osage Nation traveling to Washington, D.C., to talk with President Coolidge about the murders, and of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which that city’s white citizens killed numerous black residents and destroyed a thriving black commercial district. There are gorgeous studio portraits of Osage folks—who, the film tells us, call the moon “Mother”—sitting inside a paper moon, rendering that kitschy, sentimental photo format with cosmological poetry. As members of the Osage Nation line up to receive royalties from their oil allotments, a photographer advertises his services by using an emotional appeal: “Thirty-dollar photo for posterity. Don’t you want to preserve your family history?”
Of course, given the white residents’ attempts at exterminating the Osage, that last line is a bleak joke. In Killers, there’s a stark boundary between preservation and exploitation, one as distinct as that which demarcates the Osage reservation and off-rez areas. We’re constantly seeing people take in images, or participate in the making of their own: we see them looking, or being looked at, which adds another touch of paranoia to a film about a sprawling criminal conspiracy. But these metatextual scenes also underscore the limits of photography, and the fact that, in spite of photographic evidence, the brutality continues; as the end of the movie confirms, making art is no absolution. The film’s picture-taking brings to mind the ethnological work of someone like Edward S. Curtis, whose twenty-volume photographic study The North American Indian, comprising documentation of dozens of Indigenous nations, was initially funded by J. P. Morgan. Curtis’s work, rife with what the Diné artist and photographer Will Wilson calls “lacquered romanticism,” imprinted Indigenous images as hopelessly archival; in Curtis’s work they are a “vanishing people” tragically consigned to the past.
Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese’s most demanding epic of American grotesquerie, gestures toward this anxiety about the future. The film opens with an Osage child witnessing a ritual that the elders rightly worry will die out, and closes with a scene that serves as something like a contemporary bookmark to the opening, underscoring survival amid torturous conditions. Parts of this film can be grueling to watch, and it’s my sense that not all of the murders needed to be presented as graphically as they are. But the movie is also, at times, breathtakingly beautiful. The violence contrasts with the delicacy and intricacy of some of its themes. Maybe the killing is just Marty being Marty; after all, his oeuvre is filled with some of cinema’s most indelible sequences of violence, much of it slapstick, some of it deadly serious. Or maybe the occasionally grisly depictions are in service of twenty-first-century expectations of unambiguous moral transparency: seeing is believing, and here, it’s hard to see the cruelty done to Indigenous people and come away with any sense of moral equivocation on the part of the filmmakers.
The pictures in Killers also recall instances of photography in other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the ringside paparazzi take pictures almost at the same rate that Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) pummels Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), who is nearly blinded by jabs and flashes. In Goodfellas there are the offscreen mugshots of legally embroiled mobsters, and, early in the film, the freeze-frames of the criminal brotherhood gathered outside of the courthouse after a teenage Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) beats his first case—the moment characterized by the jubilance of a fraternity’s yearbook page. There are also the photojournalistic snapshots in Goodfellas, bound for some federal dossier; the security camera footage in Casino; the slideshows and corkboard surveillance webs in the precinct scenes of The Departed; the goofy wedding VHS tape in The Wolf of Wall Street. These meta-meditations on image-making, in films about sin and redemption, seem to speak to Scorsese’s philosophy of cinema as a quasi-religious, collective experience. In a 2000 New Yorker profile, he explained, “I believe there is a spirituality in films, even if it’s not one which can supplant faith. … It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious.” The director’s films are therefore partly about the act of capturing that shared memory, of making the act of noticing legible for viewers. They’re prompts, prodding his audience to remember that which is forgotten.
The Reign of Terror would have been one such event in danger of disappearing from historical memory—outside of Osage communities—if not for this movie’s source material, David Grann’s best-selling 2017 book, Killers of the Flower Moon. His book includes a collection of photos of the Osage Nation, some of which Scorsese has reproduced in the film. There’s one such photo, of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, in which the couple are situated in front of some kind of blank backdrop. Mollie’s seated, and Ernest stands behind her. Neither smile. The picture suggests a shared reality amid conflicting reports about the couple’s romance and, given Ernest’s actions—including conspiring to kill his in-laws—whether any love ever existed between them. The juxtaposition of the couple’s garments in the photo gets at the culture clash: he wears what appears to be a suit, black jacket, white shirt, and dark bow tie. She has a shawl draped over her shoulder, and her shirt is stunning—it appears that the blouse is embroidered with tiny quilts. Look closer, and the quilts, with their fraying edges, also resemble windows. If the focal point of this picture is the relation between this woman and this man, the tenuous imbrication between this Indigenous woman and her white grifter husband, then the punctum is the ambiguity of the symbol on her shirt, at least to outside eyes. Killers of the Flower Moon retains the ambivalence of this photo. The film addresses the quandary of the Burkharts’ love by matching the energy in the couple’s body language. It treats this romance with a lack of narrative certainty. It shrugs.
There is so much opacity in an antique portrait. Try looking at one taken before 1930, and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a respectability that impinges on the imagination of the contemporary viewer, who may struggle to enter the coldness of the photo studio, with its elegant props and formal poses. My great-grandparents’ wedding portrait, which anchors many family mantelpieces, is such an exhibit. It reminds me of the Burkharts’ photo, and was probably taken just a few years after theirs. In it, my great-grandmother sits in a grand chair. She wears the customary white garments: lacy dress, flapper hat, bone-colored stockings and gloves. She holds a pretty bouquet of flowers, and stares shyly, perhaps even mournfully, at the camera. Beside and slightly behind her, my great-grandfather is the picture of restraint, stiff in his three-piece suit. The stilted affection in this portrait invites questions about the nature of their love story. Of course, they could have been asked to pose this way, but knowing what I do about their relationship, this wedding photo foreshadows a complicated, stressful marriage: my great-grandfather’s severity and hostility on paydays, my great-grandmother’s self-sacrificing generosity. But still, there’s a scrim between them and me, a filter of nearly a hundred years—and a century’s worth of shifting social norms—separating us. I can access only so much.
This portrait is, as Tina Campt might call it, “quiet.” The frequencies of so many photos taken now are so loud: poses predetermined for popular appeal; performativity that seems more apt for an ad; overwrought captions that mimic the emotional maximalism of radio hits adapted for pharmaceutical commercials.
Italianamerican, Scorsese’s 1974 documentary, is suffused with portraiture of his parents’ wedding, childhood pictures of him and his brother, photos of his deceased grandparents. In interview segments that are interspersed with Italian mandolin music, Scorsese’s folks banter like sitcom in-laws, alternating between quips that would be at home in The Honeymooners and more straightforward admissions of affection. Nearly all of the director’s movies are essentially family portraits: of street toughs (Mean Streets); of the Band, and their extended fam, celebrating them one last time (The Last Waltz); of an inchoate criminal brotherhood (Gangs of New York); of Wall Street bros (The Wolf of Wall Street); of associates, plucked from wherever “back home” is, setting down new roots elsewhere (Casino, Silence). The sustainability of love in families is a consistent plot point of Scorsese’s films: the way it can be tested and threatened and strengthened by personal growth.
Were Mollie and Edward Burkhart in love? The question is at the core of the discourse surrounding Killers, and it grips me, too, along with that of the film’s potentially gratuitous violence. The concerns seem related somehow, in that they are about Scorsese’s negotiation of text and subtext, what needs to be explicitly surfaced and what can remain more finely drawn. At the film’s Los Angeles premiere, Christopher Cote, an Osage language consultant for Killers of the Flower Moon, said, “When somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love.” It seems impossible for someone to claim to love someone they are actively abusing. But it happens all the time. Scorsese has been mum about his own opinion on the couple, pointing instead to statements from members of the Osage Nation, including the Burkharts’ granddaughter Margie, who he says told him, “Don’t forget it isn’t as simple as villains and victims. You have to remember Mollie and Ernest were in love.” Assessing the truth of love from a century away is kind of like parsing the very nature of love itself. Often this discourse becomes a way of reclaiming or reassessing a subject, rescuing them from harm—a long-distance, anachronistic wellness check for a victim of abuse. Using twenty-first-century terms to describe choices made in a vastly different context can feel like the anthropomorphism applied to animals in a cheesy nature documentary. The inquiry becomes a way of reestablishing the framing of an otherwise slippery, unwieldy thought experiment, a problematic for contemporary viewers to project onto old images, like slapping a funny tagline or pop culture reference on a viral picture.
Getting married, just like taking a photograph, is often a way of trying to capture some ineffable feeling, to preserve it for posterity. Representations of romance are sometimes thin, or insubstantial, like a list of reasons an incompatible couple has drafted for staying together.A love story can be as rote a format as cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians (in Killers, Scorsese troubles the latter genre, and spoofs the former). Sometimes love is a kind of death drive, Romeo and Juliet–style. In The Harlem Book of the Dead, Van Der Zee reveals that one of his subjects, a young woman photographed in her coffin, was “shot by her sweetheart at a party with a noiseless gun.” “Love” is sometimes a euphemism we use for exploitation. (Does the parasite “love” the host?) “Love” is sometimes what we say to rush along the aphasia for emotions we can’t name, a vocabulary of confounding sentiments summed up in the trite reflections on a Valentine’s Day card. Sometimes “love” is the void at the heart of a relationship. There are sometimes several modes of connection between couples—convenience, children, money, sex, ambition, codependency, for example—and love never enters the picture. It occurs to me that this might be true of Scorsese’s picture as well. Perhaps love misses the point entirely. A different word altogether—care—punctuates several of the film’s most memorable moments:
Ernest, curious about Mollie’s living arrangements, asks her, “You live in this house just with your mother?” She replies, “I take care for her.”
One of two doctors King Hale assigned to poison Mollie says to Ernest, “Bill Hale has entrusted us with this care.”
After lashing out at Mollie for being suspicious of the doctors, Ernest tells his wife, “I am to take care of you. No one, no one, is gonna hurt you when I’m in front.”
Ernest asks his uncle why he takes care of Henry Roan, an Osage man who is laid out in front of Hale’s fireplace. Hale explains that Roan is a “melancholic” who’d tried to commit suicide before, and then elaborates: “I take care of that man because he’s my neighbor and he’s my best friend. That’s twenty-five thousand dollars laying there. I got an insurance policy on him; it’s against what he owes me, so if he succeeds in demising himself before the end of the year, I forfeit. So he needs to stay alive at least a few more months. I might even get a chance at his headrights.”
Rita, one of the Kyle sisters, asks her sibling, “How are you being taken care of, Mollie?” Mollie replies, “Ernest takes care of me, best he can.”
A baby sick with whooping cough “needs care.”
Ernest, trying to shake off an FBI agent at his door, says, of Mollie, “She’s resting right now and I’m caring for her.”
Shifting one’s gaze from love to care gives way to a much more nuanced consideration: of the way U.S. institutions actively counteracted the Osage’s ability to be stewards of their own nation, and of the land they were forced to flee; of the ways in which whites colluded with the courts to serve as guardians, or caretakers, of the Osage oil rights; of the dereliction of care from doctors and lawmen and other professionals; of Ernest’s malevolent caretaking, which involves poisoning his wife. The film is ultimately about whom, and what, exactly, viewers are encouraged to care about, or focus their attention on. Love is a noiseless gun, a subtle syringe. Care is something entirely different, and is less likely to be confused with malfeasance. Love is subjective, while care can be judged more objectively. All too often, inquiries into love are simple, but questions of care are a lot more complex.
Killers of the Flower Moon lies at the nexus of these two concepts. Love is this film’s focal point, but care is its punctum. In the context of Scorsese’s oeuvre, Killers is another mantelpiece portrait, a framed portal to another world, a way of contributing to common memory. Each of the nearly 297,000 frames in this 206-minute film is an instance in a dynamic sequence of events, a sequence moving literally too fast for us to perceive any single image. Impressions are possible only after some time has passed. In a speech for Variety’s Power of Women gala, Lily Gladstone spoke about the Burkharts’ relationship. “This complicated ‘love,’ this unhealthy ‘love,’ “ she said, “serves as an analogy for the ongoing treatment of Native peoples worldwide, particularly those of us who are resource-rich.” Ernest and Mollie’s wedding shot might be a form of delegation photography, that genre common in history textbooks, which portrays Indigenous nations engaged in diplomatic relations with white settlers. What is a marriage license if not the most common treaty between people?
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