In Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) loves the idea of loving. He loves money, and he says so outright in a hollered cheer. He loves girls; all of ‘em, any of ‘em—any color, any size, the ones that smell nice. When Ernest meets Mollie (Lily Gladstone), it’s unsurprising that he loves the idea of loving her most of all. She’s a deeply attractive amalgamation of the things Ernest thinks about the most; a beautiful and dignified woman, with wealth amassed from headrights to a lucrative span of oil-rich land.
By the time Ernest and Mollie are married (at the encouragement of “King” Bill Hale (Robert DeNiro), Ernest’s uncle) Ernest is certain he loves the woman herself. Ernest is not all that bright, and with enough encouragement from both his wealthy and powerful uncle, and the affections he receives from Mollie, Ernest likely really does believe he loves his new wife.
Killers of the Flower Moon is an epic. Its sizable length is justified by the sheer scale of the story it has to tell. After discovering oil on their land at the turn of the century, the Osage Nation became vastly wealthy. It took little time for vicious, brutal, and greedy people to infiltrate their communities in hopes of obtaining the group’s wealth through unfathomable brutality. Killers of the Flower Moon holds itself responsible for telling this story with unflinching specificity, creating space to mourn for individuals instead of a monolithic idea, before moving into the aftermath of these murders; a less than satisfactory investigation and punishment doled out by the FBI and the American judicial system.
In bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions, she defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. Ernet is not a loving person; not under hooks’ definition, and likely not under any others. There is no love on Ernest’s part, no effort to do the extending of one’s self for the growth of himself or Mollie—and there is certainly no love for Mollie’s extended, interconnected family and community. Ernest is driven by the singular goal of obliterating his wife’s familial lineage in the hopes of accessing more money. In fact, as Ernest seeks more and more money in his ham-fisted and brutal attempt at a singular manifest destiny, he often does so lazily. Is Ernest capable of loving anything at all? Can he even extend himself for that which is superficial and entirely self-serving?
“Can you find the wolves in this picture?” Ernest inexpertly sounds out at one point as he studies a book about the Osage people and their original predators. Ernest’s uncle may well be a wolf; groomed, dignified, and able to blend in with the community with ease—offering infrastructure, ballet studios, and hollow insistences on “love” for the people. Ernest, on the other hand, is a scraggly, flea-bitten, scavenging pest; greasy, slimy, and greedy without thought. Mollie’s nickname for her husband—“coyote”— is a fitting one.
But where Ernest and King know nothing of love, nothing of the extension of effort to nurture and grow, all that Mollie knows is love. She is the key to understanding that Killers of the Flower Moon is not about the innate brutality of humans, but the innate love that is obliterated and repressed unnaturally in the midst of a greedy, patriarchal, and white supremacist society.
Mollie loves not theoretically, but in practice. In All About Love, hooks notes that many fear genuine love because to love with a full and open heart means risking getting hurt and inevitably experiencing severe loss. As Mollie loses member after member of her family to suspicious and brutal violence, she chooses to let love endure repeatedly. Mollie mourns with full and total grief with each death. She moves through traditional rituals again and again, with emotional openness that never makes the grief seem habitual or redundant, despite the cruel requirement of their repetitions. Mollie chooses not to harden, and doing so makes her unbreakable as her spouse and his family attempt to lay waste to her family, her land, and her very spirit.
When Mollie begins growing ill herself with a mysterious “wasting disease” that’s been running rampant through her family, she begins seeing visions that her ailing mother warned her of: owls, men in hats, King sitting at her bedside. “Are you real?” Mollie calls out into the room as she gets sicker and sicker, as the lines between delusion and reality begin to blur.
Scorsese ends the film far away from Ernest and Mollie, from the investigation of the FBI, and from the suffering Osage Nation. On a stage where a true crime radio special about the Osage murders is being recorded live, Scorsese himself steps out to read the obituary of Mollie Kyle. This is real, he seems to answer her previous repeated pleas. This horror is real.
The meta-textual moment with Scorsese reading Mollie’s real obituary is the most obvious of a quieter self-reflexive thread that runs through Killers of the Flower Moon. “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” takes on a doubled meaning as the film regularly includes viewers, audiences, and bystanders consuming entertainment—films, live shows, news reels, and so on. “This picture” is the one we are watching, too. We are an audience watching an audience at multiple points within Killers of the Flower Moon, asked to consider what it means to be an observer or a bystander to atrocities such as these.
Killers of the Flower Moon—in all of its horror, violence, and despair—does not believe that humans are inherently evil. The film instead feels like it’s insisting that there can be love chosen where we so often choose fruitless and useless cruelty. Amongst the Ernests and the Kings, there are also Mollies—people who endure love because they know they must, because they know that love is the only thing that ends up being real amongst all of our delusional fantasies of oppressive power, violent excess, and meaningless wealth.