The Audacious Ending of Killers of the Flower Moon, Explained
Martin Scorsese is well aware that he’s not the first person to dramatize the story of the Osage Reign of Terror—and that his forebears were not exactly the best example. David Grann’s nonfiction book Killers of the Flower Moon ends by describing how the FBI, which arrived in Oklahoma years after the killings began, used the case to promote itself with an episode of the 1930s radio drama The Lucky Strike Hour. Two decades later, J. Edgar Hoover himself participated in the Jimmy Stewart–led film The FBI Story, which contains a brief recreation of the Osage case.
But it’s the radio drama, produced a decade after the murders, that clearly stuck with Scorsese, and which provides the astonishing coda to his new film adapted from Grann’s book. Over the course of nearly three and a half hours, Scorsese meticulously unfolds the story of Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman, and Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a white man who moves to Oklahoma. Ernest goes to work for his powerful uncle William Hale (Robert De Niro), and falls in love with Mollie. The fact that Mollie is entitled to vast wealth thanks to the oil deposits found on Osage land is, of course, not lost on Ernest. But even as it becomes clear that Ernest is conspiring with his uncle to not only seize the Osage’s wealth, but using incredible violence to do so, Mollie and Ernest’s love holds fairly strong.
As Scorsese pointed out in a recent, even FBI agents at the time asked themselves why Mollie stayed with Ernest. Scorsese’s film attempts an answer, showing Ernest—a classic gutless weasel of a Scorsese character—torn between his fear of his uncle, his greed, and his genuine love for his wife. But none of course, made it into the historical record, much less a self-serving radio drama backed by the FBI.
As the film draws to a close, we see Ernest being convicted for his crimes against Mollie’s family and other Osage people, and watch Mollie finally walk away from him, allowing herself to see for the first time just how deeply he’s betrayed her. It’s a personal, devastating scene focused on Mollie and her agency—precisely the kind of thing left out of so many stories about Native Americans.
And then Scorsese leaps boldly into the future. In the next scene, we see a cast of entirely white actors recreating the Osage story for a stage-produced radio drama, with the full benefit of Foley sound effects, a sonorous narrator, and a cheering crowd. In this version of the story, the FBI lawman Tom White (Jesse Plemons), a minor supporting character in the film, is the conquering hero, and the villains have been firmly dispatched. It is a cozy narrative conclusion to one of the last great dramas of the Wild West—and bears no resemblance to the story we’ve just seen unfold. As David Grann told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo recently, “One of the things I tried to underscore in the book was how this history was distorted. And one of the things the bureau did was, they tried to turn this into this big success, and Hoover tried to turn this into a big success, after they had apprehended a few of the killers. But there was a much deeper and darker conspiracy that the bureau never exposed.”
Then Scorsese himself arrives, stepping onstage and into a spotlight that takes the film out of the realm of reality. Taking the place of the radio drama narrator, he reads the part of the story that never made it into The Lucky Strike Hour: what happened to Mollie, the heroine of Scorsese’s version of the story. He reads the basic details of the rest of her life and her death in 1937. Scorsese’s words, describing Mollie’s obituary, are the final ones we hear in the film: “There was no mention of the murders.”
Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, Scorsese has become famous for appearing in his own films; unlike Hitchcock, Scorsese’s presence almost always comments on the action of the film itself. In Mean Streets, his third feature, he appears as a nameless henchman who fires the gun that upends the lives of our protagonists. In Taxi Driver, he’s a customer even more agitated than Travis Bickle, directing his driver’s attention—and therefore, the camera’s—toward an apartment window where he believes his wife is carrying out an affair. Scorsese is often eager to make us aware not just of his power as the one holding the camera, but of the limit that creates; he is, after all, but one man.
An even more frequently recurring feature in Scorsese’s work, however, is an obsession with storytelling: how the vital, all-consuming drama of real life can be transformed or forgotten entirely by the passage of time. In Gangs of New York, newspaper headlines show us how the bloody action of the film was translated by the press of the time, followed by the film’s final shot—gravestones obscured by weeds—emphasizing how little of it was remembered. In Hugo, Scorsese’s gentlest film by far, the most violent image is the films of Georges Méliès being melted down and turned into shoes. And most vividly and recently, in The Irishman, De Niro’s mob enforcer Frank Sheeran molders in a retirement home, talking to a nurse who doesn’t even recognize a photo of the man he killed, Jimmy Hoffa.
When stories do get remembered in Scorsese movies, they usually get remembered wrong. Both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy end with De Niro’s violent, delusional characters celebrated as heroes in the media, given exactly what they want by a world that will never know who they really are. His puckish Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Revue combines fictional events with real ones, an acknowledgment—when it comes to Dylan, at least—that there’s no point in trying to nail down the truth. Even in Raging Bull, one of history’s most famous warts-and-all biopics, the main character himself grasps for a clean Hollywood ending. In the final scene (and moments after a brief cameo from Scorsese himself), Jake LaMotta recites Marlon Brando’s famous “I could have been a contender” monologue as he prepares for the hokey one-man show that’s sustaining him now that his boxing career is finished. The monologue is how LaMotta wants to see himself, and is how Scorsese absolutely does not—but the striving toward a flatter but more heroic story is the note the film ends on anyway.