Dr. Jim Castagnera, Esq.
Special to The History Place
Killers of the Flower Moon was six years and $200 million dollars in the making. The film, like the non-fiction book on which it’s based, chronicles a murder spree in Oklahoma’s Osage Indian Nation in the 1920s. Native Americans were blatantly assassinated by white men, who coveted the Indians’ oil rights. The movie, which is three-and-a-half hours long and leaves out almost nothing in the book, brings back together Director Martin Scorsese and veteran actors Robert DeNiro (for the tenth time) and Leonardo DiCaprio (for the sixth time). The movie opened in American theaters on Friday, October 20th.
I saw it on the following Sunday afternoon, along with a modest crowd in a smallish venue. I endured about an hour of tediously slow character and plot development. It turned out to be worth it. By the end of this epic effort, I felt that Scorsese’s -- and my -- time was (just barely) well spent. Whether Apple Original Films’ mega-investment was as well spent remains to be seen. This obvious bid for a place at the “big boys’ table” may or may not reap the bounty in awards and ticket sales Apple TV+ is banking on. Time, as they say, will tell.
Meanwhile, let’s ponder the multiple levels on which this monstrous, plodding production can be approached. Wikipedia’s entry tries to describe it on its most fundamental level. “Killers of the Flower Moon is a 2023 American epicrevisionist Western crime drama film….” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killers_of_the_Flower_Moon_(film)] Movie-goers, who haven’t read the book and who come expecting a “Western crime drama,” will be disappointed.
The “action” moments, as my dear-departed Dad would have characterized them, are few and far between. When a few of the estimated five dozen murders are depicted at all, the scenes are brutal and brief. Most of the movie is comprised of sparse dialog in a viscous Western twang. So… if it’s an epic oater you’re hankering after, partner, this ain’t it.
On the other hand, if it’s a damning microcosm of the genocide that helped build this nation, then you may find Killers to be your very bitter cup of tea. It opens with Osage elders burying a ceremonial pipe, as they mourn the assimilation of the younger generations into white America, such as it was represented a century ago in the oil patches of Oklahoma. The story centers on William “King” Hale (DeNiro), a wealthy rancher who postures as the Indians’ best friend, and his nephew Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), whom Hale directs to woo and marry Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone), an Osage woman whose family owns a big patch of the oil fields. One by one, Hale rubs out Molly’s family in an orchestrated scheme to devolve those oil rights onto Molly, and when she goes to the Happy Hunting Ground, onto Ernest.
Through silent-movie clips and old photos, the film eludes to the May 31 through June 1, 1921, mob violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that resulted in the total destruction of the so-called “Black Wall Street,” in that city’s Greenwood District, the wealthiest African American community of its day. [https://guides.loc.gov/this-month-in-business-history/black-wall-street-destroyed] Thus, by inference, Killers broadens its social commentary to include the racism that plagues our country to this very day.
Speaking of this very day (or close enough) -- the Hollywood actors’ strike marked its 100th day at just about the same time that Killers opened in American theaters. According to ABC News on October 19th, “While screenwriters are busy back at work, film and TV actors remain on picket lines, with the longest strike in their history hitting the 100-day mark Saturday after talks broke off with studios. On the same day, the actors' union and an alliance representing major studios announced in a joint statement that negotiations will resume next week on Tuesday, with several studio executives expected to join.” [https://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory/hollywoods-actors-strike-nearing-100th-day-deal-reached-104136181]
What’s taking so long out there in Tinsel Town?
According to ABC News: Hopes were high and leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists were cautiously optimistic when they resumed negotiations Oct. 2 for the first time since the strike began 2 1/2 months earlier. The same group of chief executives from the biggest studios had made a major deal just over a week earlier with striking writers, whose leaders celebrated their gains on many issues actors are also fighting for: long-term pay, consistency of employment and control over the use of artificial intelligence.
But the actors' talks were tepid, with days off between sessions and no reports of progress. Then studios abruptly ended discussions Oct. 11, saying the actors' demands were exorbitantly expensive and the two sides were too far apart to continue.
Like Killers of the Flower Moon, this strike is epic in its length. And this is testing the patience of some of the stars who are card-carrying union members. On October 20th -- yes, the very day Killers opened -- “[George] Clooney along with Ben Affleck, Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson and Tyler Perry met with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) union to suggest eliminating a $1 million cap on union membership dues so that the highest-earners in the business can contribute more...” [https://www.cbsnews.com/news/george-clooney-other-stars-offer-150-million-over-three-years-to-end-actors-strike/] The extra dues, which Clooney pegged at $150 million over the next three years, would have been earmarked mostly for healthcare benefits. A union spokesperson called the offer “generous,” but added “it does not impact the contract that we’re striking over whatsoever.”
What I think the offer does impact, or rather highlight, is the breathtaking disparity between the stars and the rank-and-file union members. This is a condition that the “free market” imposes across pretty nearly all sectors of the entertainment industry. In baseball, it’s the stark contrast between compensation in the majors versus the pittances paid by the farm teams. In football, it’s the NFL compared to college players, whose compensation is strictly limited by the NCAA. It’s a strange, if not to say unique, sort of two-tiered unionism by anyone’s measure.
In addition to its depiction of racial prejudice and inequality, Killers is a kind of microcosm of the entertainment industry’s endemic economic inequality, as well. Consider for example that of the $200 million spent on the film, $30 million (some say only $25 million) went into DiCaprio’s pockets. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killers_of_the_Flower_Moon_(film)] For the math-challenged out there, that’s 15 percent of the total budget for just one actor. Lump in lesser, but still seven-figure, paydays for DeNiro (reportedly $8 mil), Brendan Fraser (reportedly $5 mil, and he’s hardly in the finished film at all), and we begin to realize that something like a quarter of the massive pie was consumed by maybe a half dozen individuals. [https://trybeem.com/blog/web-stories/killers-of-the-flower-moon-how-much-salary-cast-take-home/]
This certainly isn’t any part of the indictment of inequality that Scorsese intends to message. We -- the American audience -- have come to accept mega-salaries for major performers, even though it’s we who pay those fiddlers for dancing their tunes. The most blatant example may be NFL seat licenses. According to one commentator, “Broken down quite simply, a personal seat license is the dumbest purchase you will ever make: a payment that allows you to pay for something else you want. But in at least 15 NFL stadiums, it is a necessary purchase if you want to spend eight glorious days of the year rooting for the home team.” [https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1147108-why-personal-seat-licenses-are-killing-football-for-the-average-nfl-fan]
By contrast, movies aren’t nearly so bad. My wife and I paid about thirty bucks, total, to see Killers in an Regal multiplex in suburban Philly. If we were willing to forego the big screen experience and wait a few weeks, we probably could see it for about twenty bucks on the (pretty big) screen in our family room, when the movie makes it to Apple TV+. Since the pandemic, we find ourselves relying more on our home entertainment center and less on the multiplexes.
We made an exception and “splurged” on Killers. I’d say it was worth it, but only just. Bottom line: I hope its stay in the theaters outlasts the actors’ strike. But I’m not betting on that.
Rated R for violence, some grisly images, and language.
Dr. Jim Castagnera, Esq. is the President of Dr. Jim’s One-Stop HR Shop [https://www.drjimshrshop.com/] A longtime contributor of film reviews and essays to The History Place, he’s authored or co-authored a total of 25 books. He recently founded and is the CEO of the International Artificial Intelligence Association. He can be contacted at email@example.com