You can imagine the movie Killers of the Flower Moon was supposed to be. Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book, which premiered this past weekend at the Cannes Film Festival, was initially scripted as a true crime Western. Leonardo DiCaprio was signed up to star as Tom White, the Texas Ranger turned FBI officer who steps off a train in Oklahoma to solve the mystery surrounding murdered Osage Nation members. But the extent to which these murders were a mystery depends on whose lens we’re seeing them through, and who is telling the story.
For a white saviour figure like White, the murders, orchestrated by the interlopers marrying into Osage birthrights, was a puzzle to be solved. The members of the Osage Nation on the other hand knew that they were being systemically and brutally murdered for their claim to land by pretty much every white settler flocking in their direction. History repeats itself. And just like today, this Indigenous community had a hard time in the 1920s convincing the law to do anything about the harm being done to them.
“It’s not a whodunnit,” Scorsese told the audience at a Cannes news conference, explaining his decision to overhaul the script after consulting with members of Osage Nation. “It’s a ‘who didn’t do it?’”
White, now played by Jesse Plemons, and the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, don’t arrive in Killers of the Flower Moon until the two-hour mark, long after the Osage Nation make pleas to Washington for help. The movie’s dramatic shift in focus and perspective turns toward Mollie Burkhart, played as both reservedly fierce and sweetly tender by the incredible Lily Gladstone, and her husband, Ernest. Now playing the latter, DiCaprio takes on one of his most complicated roles as a snivelling husband trying to strike the right balance between loving his wife and making a beeline toward her wealth.
There are more minor shifts in perspectives throughout Killers, a soulful and unsettling movie that is self-aware about how storytellers twist and manipulate truth. Scorsese, as a settler filmmaker, carries on the Hollywood tradition of telling a story about Indigenous people that is not necessarily his to tell.
The conversation about who gets to tell Indigenous stories has been a critical and sensitive one in Canada. The pushback against settler filmmakers extracting these narratives, along with passionate advocacy from organizers at the imagineNATIVE and the Indigenous Screen Office, gave way to more and long-overdue opportunities for talents like Danis Goulet (Night Raiders), Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open) and producer Jennifer Podemski, whose harrowing new limited series Little Bird (directed by Tailfeathers and Zoe Leigh Hopkins) premieres on Crave and APTN Lumi this Friday.
Scorsese, like DiCaprio’s character, arrived in Osage and ingratiated himself within the community. There’s the same extractive dynamic, albeit far less sinister. But the responses toward Scorsese’s self-implicating take on the broken trust between Indigenous communities and settler populations from Osage Nation have been overwhelmingly positive and joyous.
“My people have suffered greatly and to this very day those effects are with us,” Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said during the Cannes news conference. “But I can say on behalf of the Osage, Marty Scorsese and his team have restored trust.”
Speaking to The Globe and Mail after attending the premiere, Enoch Cree Nation model and activist Ashley Callingbull said the film is a bold masterpiece. “It made me feel seen and heard and that’s exactly what representation is,” said Callingbull, before boarding a flight to Saskatoon.
As far as representation goes, the efforts Scorsese and his team made to collaborate with Osage Nation are well reported. Osage Nation consulted on the story. The film, which also stars Cree and Metis acting icon Tantoo Cardinal as Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, was shot in Osage Nation, immersed in the community, culture and rituals. Local talent was hired in acting and production roles, including the costuming.
“There is no other way to tell these stories,” says Blackfoot actor Gladstone, who broke out starring in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. “There’s no other way than to step in and allow the world that you’re in to shape what you’re saying.”
She also expressed the need for allies like Scorsese. “Who else is going to challenge people to challenge their own complicity and white supremacy on such a platform except for this man here,” Gladstone said, holding onto Scorsese’s arm. “Other artists are doing that work. People listen to what this one says.”
Throughout the news conference, Scorsese listened attentively to Gladstone, following her cues. Killers is remarkable because of its respectful and communal collaboration, which can be felt as Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker make room for something slow, sensitive and considered. In a scene, famously pictured in the sole image from the film available to press for nearly two years, Gladstone’s Mollie amusedly makes DiCaprio’s squirrely Ernest sit still and listen to a thunderstorm. Like them, Scorsese’s film seems to just breathe in the environment.
Scorsese also reins in the violence, without necessarily shying away from it. The director’s films, from Taxi Driver to The Departed, often indulge in carnage. But in Killers – which will open in theatres this October before streaming on Apple TV+ – the filmmaker handles violence, particularly toward women, in ways that are no less disturbing and tragic without feeling predatory or sensational.
“It was hard to watch but the world needs to see that this is a painful reality our Indigenous women still face every day,” says Callingbull, who has long been outspoken about issues surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women. “To see the truth on the screen is a powerful statement because we are also showing that regardless of what issues Indigenous people face we are still here and we are rising.”