- Martin Scosese
- Run Time
- 3 hours and 26 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
We are indebted to master filmmaker Martin Scorsese that during the process of co-writing this film he switched from making it a police procedural show centered on a white detective and focused instead on the Osage Indians who were being victimized by the greed of their white neighbors. Thus, this film is not just a murder mystery, but the story of an Osage woman and her family ravaged by the avarice of cunning white men—cruel, ruthless men who form a long chain of greed and murder stretching back to Christopher Columbus. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth draw their plot from David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller of the same name, a book I hope soon to read.
The Osage tribe had been pushed out of Missouri onto seemingly worthless land in Oklahoma, their’s similar to the fate of the Lakota’s loss of their sacred Black Hills in the last quarter of the 19th century. However, as we see in a series of simulated (and real) B&W newsreel clips, oil had been discovered in Osage County, making the families of the tribe among the richest people in the world. They join the nouveaux rich, buying luxury cars, Paris-designed clothing, and ostentatious jewelry. However, though it might be the 20th century where the use of the cavalry to drive the Indians away from their homes is no longer fashionable, anti-Indian prejudice still permeates white culture. Whites do not sit idly by while their Indian neighbors proudly display their wealth. The federal government requires the families to accept the supervision of a white guardian because Indians are not regarded mature enough to make wise economic decisions. And, far worse, many whites woo and marry Indian women and kill them off—some by slow poisoning designed to look like the ravage of natural diseases and others by out and out shootings—so that they can inherit what are called the headrights of the oil-rich property owned by the woman.
Will this be the fate of the young Osage Nation woman Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone)? In 1919 a train steams into the village of Fairfax in Osage County. Among the passengers rushing off to cash in on the oil boom is WW 1 veteran Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), returning to his uncle’s ranch where his brother Byron (Scott Shepherd) also lives and works. The Uncle’s nickname, Bill “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro) describes well the wealthy rancher’s role in the affairs of the county. He holds sway over the local politics—the sheriff is in his pocket—and, we learn slowly as the plot progresses, is held in high esteem by the Osage as their benefactor.
Young Ernest has served as an Army cook, but otherwise has no marketable skills—or money. He runs errands for his uncle and drives a cab. He is like the other whites streaming into town, devoid of a moral compass, as we see, when he joins with two other whites one night, donning masks and robbing an Indian couple of their jewelry and money. However, he soon loses his ill-gotten proceeds in a poker game.
It is as cab driver that he becomes acquainted with Mollie. He transports her in his open top cab almost every time that she ventures out. He is attracted to her even before Uncle Hale suggests that he court the woman. The uncle’s motive is purely pecuniary, Mollie being well-off due to her oil money, but Ernest’s interest at first is romantic. Mollie has three sisters married to white men, all of them suffering from some wasting illness. One of them is a feisty “pistol-packing mama” who uses the gun to wound a would-be assaulter—but later she is led into the woods where she is shot and killed. The other two sisters weaken and die, their headrights passing on to Mollie.
In the midst of the above events, Ernest grows closer to Mollie. He even starts attending the service of the reservation’s Catholic Church to which she belongs. Mollie eventually invites him to stay for supper, at which he speaks a dozen words to her one. She is caring for her ailing mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal), who suspects that greedy whites are behind the many deaths that have afflicted the tribe. However, she makes no objection to Ernest, apparently not suspecting him. Their wedding, similar to the one in The Godfather, is a set piece for the film. Mollie and the other Osage women are attired in colorful military-style dresses with 18-inch-high head pieces. The tables are heaped with delectable food. There is drumming and dancing, with the Roman Catholic priest in attendance. The shaman officiates at the ceremony, and even he wears a cross, so the Osage apparently have blended the Christian faith, once mandated by the federal government, with their traditional religion. (The Osage also, like most Native Americans, had been forced to turn over their children to white-run schools where they were forbidden to give up their language, customs, and clothing style.)
All the above is according to the devious Hale’s plan, in order to make Ernest the inheritor of the family’s headrights when Mollie is taken out. As time passes, Mollie and Ernest sire two children. Because he does love his wife, Ernest is hesitant to give in to Hale’s plan to poison Mollie, but the uncle is persistent and persuasive in appealing to his nephew’s greed. Posing as the benefactor of the tribe (he even has learned the Osage language), Hale has managed to obtain for Mollie a supply of the new and expensive insulin when she is diagnosed as a diabetic. With the complicity of the doctors, Hale also obtains a poisonous compound which he orders Ernest to add to her insulin injections. This produces in Mollie the same debilitating symptoms that afflicted her two sisters.
So many members of the tribe have died from seeming sickness or by violence that the elders meet to discuss the deaths. The chief elder laments their situation as one more example of how the whites have long treated indigenous people. They decide to hire detectives to investigate the deaths—local authorities had closed all the cases without any investigation. Some detectives are beaten, one even murdered. The homicides remain unsolved. The Osage decide to appeal to Washington for help. Though ailing, Mollie decides to go with the delegation to plead for help to end what they call their “reign of terror.” For a brief moment she does gain the ear of President Coolidge, but he turns away from her, giving no hint of being interested in her cause.
Federal help does eventually arrive–in the form of Tom White (Jesse Plemons), an agent sent by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation. There follow his persistent inquiries, Hale’s pressuring his nephew to continue to poison Mollie, and a dramatic trial at which Tom White pressures Ernest to testify against Hale. From the other side Hale and his legal team pressure Ernest to recant his testimony. The story is told in detail, with every one of the film’s 206 minutes worthy of inclusion (despite what some of those impatient with its length claim). The use of Rodrigo Prieto’s fluid camera work immerses us in the story. There is a marvelous scene in which we move through the front door of Molly’s house and are led through its various rooms where the family are seen sitting, chatting, and drinking in the various rooms—all in one shot! There is an ironic humor at various points, such as when a hit man is ordered to make one of the murders look like a suicide, as had been done earlier—and instead, the dunce shoots the victim in the back of the head.
And Scorsese’s masterstroke is its ending! He replaces the usual end cards revealing the fate of the various characters with a dramatic scene of a radio show enacted before a live studio audience. The radio drama is the recreation of an actual episode of the Lucky Strike Radio Hour, an actual radio series popular in the Thirties. The story of the solving of the Osage murders is acted out by white actors standing and reading before the microphones while a foley artist injects sound effects, such as the loud clang of the prison door closing. The overly simplified drama centers on what is a supporting character in our film, Tom White, given sole credit as the hero solving the case. This ending is based on David Grann’s book which explains that the FBI, which had covered up some of its errors in solving the case, used the program to whitewash the story*—there were other murderers who got away with their crimes. Pay attention to the last narrator of the radio program—his identity is a delight!
Scorsese reveals well the racist milieu of the nation during the Twenties. There is a vintage newsreel showing the destruction in Tulsa of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa by whites—they even burn the newly constructed Black Methodist church building. In an even longer sequence we see a large parade marching down the main street of Fairfax. The camera focuses upon a troop of uniformed Boy Scouts at first, and then slowly pans toward a huge crowd of adult marchers—all dressed in the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. It is a chilling sight—calling to mind the famous photo of thousands of Kluxers marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. No one in the crowd expresses disapproval but looks on as if this were an acceptable display of American patriotism.
The film has been called by some a masterpiece, to which I would “Amen.” As an expression of the outcry of the Hebrew prophets against oppression and exploitation of the poor, it will be at the top of my Top Ten Films for this year. Plus, it is not only an example of social evil, but on the individual level, it presents in the story of Ernest and Bill Hale the perfect example of two men who lose their souls in the pursuit of wealth.
And for those who enjoy exploring a different culture, similar to what the director did in Kundun, this film is a treat. It opens with a ceremonial burying of a pipe, perhaps symbolic of the way predatory whites have been burying (read assimilating) Native American culture. Scorsese sought the advice of Osage tribal members, very much evident throughout the film—especially the already mentioned wedding sequence. But in that ending the narrator of the radio show makes a clever admission, vouchsafed by interviews by such persons as Christopher Cote, an Osage-language consultant who worked on the film, that only an Osage filmmaker could truly tell Molly’s story, even though Scorsese has done a credible job. Indeed, this reminds me that the director devotes the last shot of the film to the Osage, in which the camera is focused tightly on a large ceremonial drum. In an overhead shot the camera pulls back, slowly revealing hundreds of Osage in ceremonial costumes dancing in large circles around the drum. I at first thought the spectacular image looked like a pinwheel, but then thought of a gorgeous, multicolored flower. I like this better because it suggests that like flowers springing up in arid places, so the Osage will continue to grow and flourish despite their difficult environment.
*In 1959 the FBI would continue to use the Osage murders to burnish its image with the Jimmy Stewart film The FBI Story—see the trailer on YouTube.
This review will be in the November. issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.