Ban this teaching, Ron DeSantis. I dare you.

(Apparently, Oklahoma is working on doing that very thing — erasing an essential truth from American history so that new generations live in ignorance. Oklahoma: Land of the Wisdom-Free, Home of the Less-than-Brave!)


Did you know that the peak of Google searching for “Mike Pence” happened when a fly landed on his head on national television? That fly may be the most famous of its kind since the fly who landed on Paul Freeman’s face and appeared to crawl into his mouth during a key scene in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I want to know how director Martin Scorsese managed to track down the Mike Pence Fly and then, in the production of Killers of the Flower Moon, direct it to land symbolically on the heads of characters whose hearts have gone dead. I need a journalist to ask the big questions! And let’s get that bug a supporting actor nomination!

But seriously, I have trouble believing the appearance of a fly on the head of Sheriff William Hale — during a scene in which he is feigning concern for local Native Americans, and covering up his conspiratorially murderous endeavors against those same people — is just a coincidence. (No, that’s not a spoiler, unless you’re new to the idea that the First Peoples have been the targets of a genocidal strategies since so-called “American history” began.) There are other moments later in Killers of the Flower Moon when flies buzz about the heads of other criminal characters as if to draw attention to their cold, dead hearts, and their distinctly American malevolence.

“Can you find the wolves in this picture?” That’s a caption for an illustration that we glimpse momentarily in the film. But it resonates as the central question of the film. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]

Killers belongs in the genre we call “True Crime,” a longstanding tradition of American entertainment that the movie eventually acknowledges—and, before it’s over, explicitly dramatizes. The film, like the book by David Grann that inspired it, in an exposé revealing crimes against humanity that white supremacists and Christian nationalists would rather erase from school history classes—carefully documented conspiracies that have gone unpunished and that contradict the very principles that patriotic Americans have typically boasted about. It reveals that, for all of our self-congratulation over defeating the Nazis in World War II, we are equally capable of—and guilty of—race-based genocide.

And Scorsese isn’t just focused on what white settlers, with the cooperation of their “by the white people, for the white people” government, have done (and continue doing) to Native Americans. There’s a smart glance sideways, as this story’s violence unfolds, toward news footage of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

The movie is not subtle in suggesting that if we don’t ever—even now, in 2023—face fully our moral failings and complicity in this violence, if we can’t take action to make amends, we encourage the undeniable swelling of Nazism and other tumors of hatred and violence within the bodies of our own communities and cultures. So long as we support, enable, and make excuses for criminals in positions of power—as Pence did for Trump, and as our weak-willed protagonist does in this story—we are bound to increase a debt of depravity for which the bill will someday come due.


Killers of the Flower Moon has so much more to offer than an historical whodunnit.

If Scorsese had stuck to David Grann’s book, an FBI man (played by Jesse Plemons) would have been the protagonist. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Grann’s deeply troubling account is about a former Texas Ranger who joins the FBI in its early days and is sent to investigate relentless murders of the Osage people in Oklahoma. Scorsese’s movie, staying true to the historical details, reimagines the narrative, postponing any coverage of that investigation until after we’ve become invested in the community where the crimes are carried out.

We’re introduced instead to Ernest Berkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a slow-witted World War I war veteran who returns to his Oklahoma-based family in Osage territory to receive a hero’s welcome and find a new life working for his uncle, William “Bill” Hale (Robert De Niro), the local deputy sheriff. Ernest’s face isi almost always contorted in efforts to make sense of this society, his responsibilities, and his own conflicted conscience. He’s surprised by, confused by, and even a little aggravated by the fact that the Native Americans there are among the wealthiest Americans he has ever met, enjoying the rewards of having found oil on their land. Like the cab man famously played by De Niro himself almost a half-century ago in Scorsese’s early masterpiece Taxi Driver, Ernest is easily confused and deeply insecure. Like Henry Hill in Scorsese’s GoodFellas, he’s easily duped and manipulated into carrying out the dastardly deeds of a criminal mastermind. And like Kichijiro in Scorsese’s adaptation of Shasuko Endo’s Silence, Ernest is doomed to become a fear-driven fool, prone to betraying even those he loves the most when the devils who control him require it.

This Leonardo DiCaprio’s resting face in Killers of the Flower Moon. Let’s just say his character is… conflicted. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

When Ernest falls for Molly (Lily Gladstone), a local Osage woman who matches the “body type” he describes to his uncle as his sexual preference, Hale seizes this opportunity to secure their marriage in a way that will also re-route fortunes from Molly’s family toward his own.

In the movie’s opening scenes, Hale instructs Ernest to “educate” himself on the Osage through a children’s book about their history. If you’ve seen the trailer for Killers of the Flower Moon, you’ve heard Ernest repeatedly sound out the words of a question: “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” And the implication is clear: In this film, some villains may be obvious. Others may lurk in the shadows, wearing the “sheep’s clothing” of civil servants, philanthropy, healing, and faith. As Ernest scowls at a picture-puzzle illustration in the book, he lacks the imagination and intellect to realize that his own kin are deliberately embedding and entangling themselves in Osage communities like predators stalking prey with intent to take their land, their oil, and their fortunes.

The most obvious of the villains is probably clear to us through casting alone: De Niro plays Sheriff Hale as a charismatic politician with all the right (and the “Right”) religious vocabulary, feigning Christian conviction while pulling strings to rob the Osage blind. And he’s good enough at this game that Osage elders honor him as a champion of their cause, even relying on his resources to seek out those responsible for the “epidemic” of murders in their community.

William Hale (Robert De Niro) indoctrinates his nephew Ernest in the interest of bleeding the Osage people of their wealth and their health. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

Like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water—or, in this case, boiling oil—Ernest is easily persuaded to embrace a contradiction that will break him apart from within: Even as he loves Molly and starts a family with her, he’s soon following his uncle’s orders for increasingly flagrant violence, an Oklahoman application of nationwide campaigns advancing a genocide of Native peoples. Even as Ernest struggles with the harrowing and debilitating intensity of Molly’s grief over mounting losses to her family, he goes on covering up his uncle’s sins, even negotiating terms with notorious hit men himself, unable to persuade himself that the man he’s been conditioned to adore could be such a serpent… such a wolf.

As many critics have observed already — I’m especially grateful for Alissa Wilkinson’s outstanding reflection at Vox.com — Killers of the Flower Moon continues a profound trend in Scorsese’s recent filmmaking. As in Silence and The Irishman, he is stripping away the glamour and glory that he afforded criminals in films from GoodFellas to The Wolf of Wall Street. While his movies have never condoned the evils of the gangsters that so fascinate him, they have always given more attention to the charismatic characters committing the crimes than to those who have suffered from the greed and the violence.

Osage leaders demand justice for their people — but they’re demanding it from leaders they have no good reason to trust. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

I hold that we need Taxi Driver, for all of its horrific bloodshed. We need stories that inspire our empathy for the poor, the social outcasts, the alienated young men who can easily, if they are denied care and guidance, and if they grow up in a context of toxic, gun-worshipping masculinity, become sociopathic killers.

What’s more, much to the chagrin of many of my Christian colleagues, I think we need The Wolf of Wall Street too. Its extremely R-rated portrayals of misogyny serve to deconstruct a corrupt cultural iconography. It peels away the flashy facades of those who live in wealth and privilege, showing us the cancers rotting the heart of the American experiment. (Even recently, Christian film critics were calling me out for approving of “pornography.” What Scorsese’s doing isn’t pornography. He’s placing images equivalent to those that seduce young men into dangerous criminal gangs right alongside images of the devastating consequences of such lifestyles. It’s an effective, if risky, bait-and-switch.) The Wolf of Wall Street has already served us as a prophetic vision of America’s past, present, and future: It showed us how a capitalist society, devoid of moral vision, enables and empowers compulsive liars. It all but predicted that we would soon promote a con artist like Jordan Belfort to the office of President. I think almost daily of the irony that most evangelicals who, making a fist of one hand and shaking it at me for praising The Wolf of Wall Street and its morally depraved antihero, will simultaneously, with their other hand, vote for politicians who behave just as malevolently as that antihero. They can’t stand the discomfort they feel when they see such behavior on the screen, even as they enable an Antichrist guilty of the same behavior to reach the White House, hoping he’ll deliver on his false promises to them.

Having said that, I am grateful to see Scorsese, in these later years of his career, expanding the frame of his vision. In Killers of the Flower Moon, he gives unprecedented attention to those who suffer from the crimes of the gangsters who so fascinate him. The compassion and lament woven into the fabric of this tapestry represent a deepening of conscience and wisdom. He is bearing witness to the deep hypocrisy of this so-called “Christian nation.” He is doing his best to educate us about our cultural sins and the moral responsibility we bear to make amends for them. In Killers of the Flower Moon, he does this in a way that admits his own complicity in a history of injustice. All of this seems like a progression from things he said to me when I interviewed him during the theatrical run of Silence. (You can read that conversation here.)

The fact that he’s working on yet another film about Jesus, at the suggestion of Pope Francis himself, fills me with anticipation and hope. I have great respect for his first film about Jesus, despite its weaknesses, and I hold in even higher esteem his reverent adaptation of Silence with its portrait of devout Christian missionaries discovering the consequences of presumptuous evangelism.


Nevertheless, I find that Killers of the Flower Moon leaves me with deeply conflicted thoughts and feelings.

As big-screen entertainment, it is impressively artful on almost every level of craft, from the performances (with one notable exception that I will critique momentarily), to the period recreation of 1920s, to the powerful scoring by Robbie Robertson. The 3-hours and 25-minutes fly by in what feels more like 120.

The source of the Osage fortunes: By unleashing the “blood” of their own land, Native Americans are inadvertently baiting the “sharks” of capitalism into their community. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

But while I commend Scorsese’s conscientious efforts to spotlight the sufferings of the Osage people, and to give Lily Gladstone’s Molly the most prominent role of any woman in any of his 20+ feature films, I feel that the great director’s preoccupation with “wolves” too often dominates this picture. For all of the energy he invests in honoring the First Peoples by revealing how they were deceived and slaughtered, his fascination with the depravity of powerful men still seems the subject he’s most excited about dramatizing.

And that makes Killers of the Flower Moon, in spite of its notable strengths, feel like a missed opportunity.

The movie is strongest when the camera is focused on actors playing the Osage community, particularly Lily Gladstone as Molly. Or, when it is focused on Robert De Niro, who is doing some of his best work here since Michael Mann’s Heat in 1995.

I’ll probably be in the extreme minority on this point — but here we go: I find Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance to be, for all of its Oscar-begging showiness, the film’s weakest link. It’s not that his acting is poor, exactly; it’s that there’s just too much of it. He seems to be striving so hard for a Brando-level transformation here (are those cotton balls he’s stuffed into his cheeks?), that he seems almost desperately needy for attention whenever he’s sharing a scene. This is a movie that needs generous performances.

Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the positions his uncle is putting him in. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

During the first two hours, I was content to brush off DiCaprio’s familiar intensity, in part because it was refreshing to see him cast off any sex-symbol status and create such an absolutely wretched protagonist. Ernest is so dumb, so gullible, so pathetic; his conscience is just a feeble spark buried under a heap of ashes, one that we hope will suddenly flare into action. But in the third hour, DiCaprio’s familiar capital “A” Acting — which always has a hint of desperation about it, as if he’s trying to live up to “the promise” that critics hyped up during those impressive childhood performances — takes over. And he goes Full-Revenant, contorting his face in such paroxysms that he looks he’s fighting a CGI bear to be animated in later. Unlike any other actor in the movie, DiCaprio seems to be running on a script designed to earn an Oscar nomination. It’s like there are tiny coaches running around inside his head shouting Act! Act! Act!

As a result, I have trouble believing that Molly, who seems so wise, so careful, so dignified, would fall so easily for this stammering dope. (That makes this the second American History Epic, after Gangs of New York, for which Scorsese has set DiCaprio as a romantic lead, and I end up constantly thinking about the actor’s striving instead of believing the character he’s playing.)

There’s so much wonderfully nuanced acting going on all around DiCaprio that he almost seems nervous about it. By contrast, performances by De Niro and Gladstone and Plemons and — the most pleasant surprise here — Jason Isbell (!!) seem effortlessly convincing and magnetic.

One by one, the bodies pile up until they become too heavy for Sheriff Hale’s dismissals and excuses. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]

By contrast, what a relief it is to see De Niro invested again, being his actual age instead of having to act against de-aging tricks like he did in The Irishman. As William Hale, De Niro makes this “Bill” every bit as malevolent as Daniel Day-Lewis’s “Bill the Butcher” in Gangs of New York. But unlike that hyperviolent monster, Hale never has to fire a bullet or throw a knife to become the film’s fearsome anti-soul, a black hole of lies and schemes and greed. On a couple of occasions, De Niro jump-scares us with that old Max “Cape Fear” Cady smile, and I was just so glad to see that he’s still capable of committing fully to a complicated role.

But then again, just as I have trouble believing in Molly’s love for Ernest, it wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have found the community’s trust in the obviously duplicitous Hale too implausible. The charade of civility and religiosity that Hale puts on to gain control over the community seems like a con to me from the start. But now I understand it — it’s not that Hale is fooling his fellow Americans. It’s that the white “Christian” community developing around him would rather turn a blind eye to his moral failings, and enable a monster of “their own kind,” than have to share the world with cultures they see as inherently inferior. The Devil doesn’t need to don a disguise; he just needs to promise insecure “Christians” that he’ll give them cultural supremacy, and they will hand him a badge, a Senate seat — even the White House. All they ask is that he sweep aside the neighbors they see as “incompetent” and “savage.”

This is happening right now, in real time, even this week, as a man who cloaks himself in the lies and distortions of Christian nationalism seizes the role of Speaker of the House. The tactics of the villains spotlighted here by Scorsese are being practiced in broad daylight by today’s GOP. There’s a direct line from Bill Hale to Jordan Belfort to “President” Trump. And Scorsese isn’t shy about highlighting that, giving Hale scenes in which he boasts about his “close friendships” with the very people he seeks to erase.

Pulling strings like a satanic puppeteer, Hale seems untroubled even as officers of the law close in around him. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]

Given my experience with the evangelicals who condemn The Wolf of Wall Street but vote for DeSantis and Trump, I don’t expect that Killers of the Flower Moon is going to do anything to awaken “Christian” America’s collective conscience. They’ll call the depiction of Hale an “attack” on Christianity, just as they said of Paul Dano’s mad evangelist in There Will Be Blood (perhaps the big screen’s closest equivalent to a Flannery O’Connor monster that we’ve seen since John Huston’s Wise Blood). They’ll make a fuss about this in order to drown out the implication that their own churchgoing communities might be complicit in American genocide.

Meanwhile, Gladstone’s Molly becomes the film’s suffering Christ: at times a Mona Lisa, wisdom shining in a penetrating gaze and a tight-lipped silence, and at other times a Joan of Arc, slowly burning before our eyes at the stake of white supremacy and flagrant greed. (If it had been up to me, I’d have given Gladstone top billing. DiCaprio doesn’t need it. And it feels inappropriate to even suggest that heart of the movie beats for Ernest and not for Molly.)

Lily Gladstone is the film’s beating heart, and she deserves top billing. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]

The camera may be enamored of DiCaprio and De Niro, but the magnificent score by Robbie Robertson is a direct line to Molly’s heart, pulsing with sounds rooted in Native tradition. In this grand finale to a relationship that began with 1977’s The Last Waltz, Scorsese and Robertson give the film one of its most distinctive flourishes. And it serves as a profound conclusion to a series of Robbie Robertson records that have celebrated Native American traditions — most significantly 1994’s haunting Music for the Native Americans. He provides us with a voice for Molly’s lament in more than words can say.

In her, we glimpse a genuine faith. Scorsese goes so far as to show us avatars of the spirits she believes in, appearing not as delusions for a traumatized victim but as an elder steps into the afterlife. With this, Scorsese boldly affirms that Molly is more intimate with a Holy Spirit than of her “Christian” neighbors on the scene. And in the film’s closing shot, we get a sense that the spirits who anchor her, both within time and beyond it, represent a higher power that will bring about an inescapable reckoning for all of the sins so blasphemously committed under the banner of “Christian America.”


A bittersweet conclusion and a nagging question

How do I express the second of my lingering frustrations with the film without ruining the surprises and challenges of the film’s final fifteen minutes?

I’ll do my best.

Suffice it to say that Scorsese, as “earnest” as he is here about exposing the truth about America’s genocidal crimes against the First Peoples, makes a sudden stylistic turn near the end that makes it almost inevitable that our post-movie conversations will be as much about him as they are about the sufferings of the Osage people or about the ways in which white Americans’ insidious and ongoing efforts to eliminate Others continue today. And that involves a fleeting cameo appearance.

I want to come away from Killers of the Flower Moon talking about and thinking about and grieving for the Osage and all of the other tribal peoples who were slaughtered by myriad strategies, all obscene, all satanic. And I do. But who did I spend the first hour after the movie thinking about and talking about? And who do I see professional film critics talking about most in their reviews? Scorsese.

In Alissa Wilkinson aforementioned piece at Vox.com, she highlights how this movie works continues a trend evident in Scorsese’s last few movies to reveal something about the filmmaker’s own soul-searching. Near the end of the piece, she writes,

Showing up at the end of Killers of the Flower Moon to specifically note how the story of the murders and of Mollie’s family was largely ignored is a tacit acknowledgment that [Scorsese] knows this isn’t a perfectly constructed story, either. Here he is, a man whose success comes at least in small part from proximity to the kind of men who murdered, asking for forbearance. For forgiveness, in a sense. An admission that these real events are not really fodder for an award-winning movie with a red-carpet Cannes premiere. None of it ever really has been.

She’s right, of course. (Wilkinson is one of the wisest writers in film criticism these days, and I’m so grateful that she’s publishing on such a prominent platform. I hope we get to see many more years of her work there.) What she’s highlighting needs our attention. Any close analysis of a work of art is bound to give some attention to what we know of the artist.

At the same time, it concerns me that so much of what I’m seeing and hearing in the wake of this movie’s arrival is preoccupied with talk about Scorsese himself.

The life within a work of art is so much greater than anything the artist might intend or even begin to understand. In every class I teach about creative writing and literary analysis, I fight a losing battle with students over the idea that the “real meanings” of any works of art are something the artists keep like secrets, and that they are the only ones who can truly answer our questions. It’s just not true. An artist might have all kinds of thoughts, intentions, and convictions that lead them to put marks on the page. But once the marks are there, the marks have lives of their own, bringing with them worlds of association and history that the artists weren’t thinking about. And when audiences examine those works, they bring their own ideas, fears, and questions to the encounters, which means they will see make new connections and see new possibilities. In my countless conversations with artists, I have come to love the frequent experience of seeing an artist discover that their art means something they’ve never thought about before.

Thus, while I’m interested in talking about a film’s director in the broader conversation about the film, it’s the art itself and the work’s energy matter to me so much more than the artist. As Annie Dillard writes in Holy the Firm,

There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.


Stories we tell: Scorsese is intensely interested in how our sense of history is shaped by whose stories are told… and who tells them. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]

Yes, Scorsese is making sacrifices here at the end of his career — sacrifices that may be a form of atonement for earlier works that devoted more awestruck attention to swaggering crooks than to those who have suffered for their crimes. But how much energy shall we expend on admiring his act of conscience when we might instead devote meaningful time and effort in the greater matter at hand: the neglect of those who have suffered immeasurable loss in the violence enabled and even enacted by Americans?

Most of the post-movie conversations I’ve experienced about Killers of the Flower Moon have been about Scorsese, his bravery, his character, his bold choices in the final minutes. Very little of the discussion has focused on the sufferings of First Peoples—which I want to believe is the true focus of the film—or on the ways in which Sheriff Bill Hale, his greed, and his violence against brown- and black-skinned Americans is perpetuated today by Christian nationalists and by Republicans who are seeking to censor true chapters of American history like these.

Sure, when it comes to what we talk about when we talk about Killers of the Flower Moon, much of the responsibility lies with the audience. Maybe it’s just easier to talk about the celebrities than it is to talk about the depth of our complicity in crimes against humanity. But the fact remains that my attention—and I suspect the attention of the audience—suddenly shifts during those final minutes in a way that turns our attention to Scorsese’s conscience rather than the dead for whom we’re (hopefully) grieving. It’s a conundrum I’m struggling with. If I write a novel, I don’t want do anything in the storytelling that will make articles published about the book focus on me, my personal history, or the health of my conscience. I want people to be shaken by the questions and characters that shook me as I wrote the story.

True stories that have been erased from history books are finding their way back, troubling the American conscience, proving the lie of nationalistic vanity. [Image from the Apple TV trailer.]

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t a last-minute dismissal of Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s a great film, and one of the most important events this year in American pop culture. I’m just saying that I wish I had been able to remain enchanted by Scorsese’s magnificent storytelling, and moved by Gladstone and the rest of the cast who were so generous in their ensemble performances. I wish I had been less distracted by the itchy feeling that, as the credits finished rolling, Scorsese might have, even with the best of intentions, ended up making things too much about himself.

Regardless of my aggravations, which I express here in the hopes that they might at least season the larger cultural conversation we’re having about the film, I believe that this movie’s strengths—its urgent and excruciating truth-telling, its often extraordinary artistry, its profoundly affecting score, and the burden of responsibility it reveals to us in our suspension of disbelief—are what matters most. These are the reasons I am so grateful that the movie exists. If we do not join Scorsese in this public acknowledgement of these crimes, taking responsibility for our complicity, and engaging in meaningful and substantial repentance, we’re bound to see history repeat itself. Or worse.

And I don’t want those flies settling on my head.