A Silent River In A Moonlit Night
Genocides of the indigenous communities are a historical fact in America
“They may be surprised to hear words of gentle reasonableness coming from the mouths of Indians stereotyped in the American myth as ruthless savages,” excerpted from ‘Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee’ by Dee Brown.
You have a nice skin colour, do you know that? What is the colour? He asks.
My colour, she says.
Mollie Kylie (Lily Gladstone) is a full-blooded Osage. In a prejudiced and supremacist, colour-and-race-driven civilization of mercenary, white usurpers and killers, she is proud of her colour, like her community is proud of their spiritual symbols, their synthesis with nature, and their self dignity and identity in an ancient land which they have inherited as their own.
She is sublime and serene. She is extremely beautiful. She is calm. Even in the most troubled moments, there is a certain peaceful aura which envelops her ethereal presence.
A nuanced, native beauty, with her, the originality and authenticity of beauty is not skin-deep. It runs deep, inside her soul, and in the recesses of her mind. Deeper than her eyes, which speak, almost always, even as she rarely speaks.
Her calm face at once becomes a silent river on a moonlit night, moving in the ebb and flow of swift and fleeting emotions. Her kind, intelligent eyes seem to see and understand everything. Her intelligence runs like trained wisdom, inherited from the quiet and stoic talent of her native Indian community in Osage county in the Oklahoma of the United States in the early 20th century, starting with the 1890s.
Mollie is the anchor and scaffolding of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon, an incredible, introspective film, which shows the damned mirror to super-power American and lays bare its genocidal past, when they murdered tens of thousands of unarmed, magnanimous, original inhabitants of this country to usurp vast tracts of their land.
She is surrounded by two towering stars and great actors in contemporary Hollywood: Robert De Niro, now in his early 80s, and Leonardo DiCaprio, hitting 50. However, Lily Gladstone seems unperturbed by the reservoir of their talent, or their formidable Hollywood past. In her superlative performance, she is as unassuming, organic and natural, as only she could be.
Her face hides and expresses the shifting screenplay and pulsating plot of the movie, trapped in a sinister and diabolical backdrop unleashed by the greedy and evil presence of the whites, with a series of mysterious deaths and murders stalking this pristine land. Indeed, when she is not on the screen, she is still there in the backdrop, her absence as an eternal presence.
Truly, when she speaks, and which is so rarely, often in a whisper in her soft, sunshine, native language, she reflects the steadfast wisdom of her ancient community. “You talk too much,” she tells her white cab driver, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), with a smile so sly and serene, that the whole world closes on her feet.
Indeed, Ernest talks too much. A former infantry man in World War One, rootless, jobless, homeless, thoughtless, greedy for women, slimy, and without an iota of character, or integrity, meaningless in a new country of the flourishing indigenous community, forever in doubt and slavish in conduct, DiCaprio enacts the role of this mercenary in his late 40s, with characteristic brilliance. “I love all kinds of women,” he tells De Niro, his uncle. “And I love money.”
His hair, oiled and rolled down in two semi-circles, destroying the most minimal sense of glamour in his lacklustre but handsome face. His lips almost always twisted down in utter self-doubt and characterless guilt, his forehead forever furrowed with worry which he cannot solve, which he refuses to solve, his face without beauty or sensitivity, his upper teeth, sometimes protruding
It is his blue eyes which attract Mollie’s attention, as the Osage women joke about the white men around. Minnie, Mollie’s sister, tells about her white husband, a morose, seemingly insensitive and scheming Will Smith: “He is like a rabbit.”
A versatile and brilliant Robert De Niro (King William Hale), is the owner of Osage Hills in Fairfax, Osage county. He calls himself the king, and is the de facto deputy sheriff of the area.
He is an unrepentant and sinister, rich old man in stunningly good health, highly connected with influential persons, who manipulates the entire indigenous community into friendly submission, and is scheming one dirty deal after another to capture their endless wealth and oil factories. This includes master-minding cold-blooded murders, bomb blasts, assassins, betrayals, set-ups and plants.
He effectively enslaves and uses his clueless and servile nephew, Ernest, to unleash his diabolical deals. It’s just that, it becomes one too many, and the deaths and murders in Osage county becomes a simmering wound which finally turns him into a blood-thirsty monster.
So much so, he gets his best friend, Henry, a melancholic, indigenous owner of vast tracts of land and cattle, murdered. He just wanted to get the insurance money which he had staked on him.
The irony is that the hired killer shot Henry at the back-of-the-head in an empty landscape, luring him with local booze. Hale is pissed. It had to be a suicide! The bullet should have gone through his forehead, he screams in despair.
Osage county is the land of black gold, oil, discovered in the late 19th Century. Wise, hard working and skillful, the natives set up factories across the vast hinterland, and explore and trade with oil.
At one time they became the richest people on earth, in terms of per capita income. White workmen and greedy predators arrived from all over to work in their oil factories and usurp some part of their wealth.
Their women would dress in fancy clothes, travel in cars driven by white chauffeurs, they would wear expensive ornaments, live in lovely houses, and they would own huge tracts of oil and unlimited wealth, unprecedented and unimaginable in the America of that time. Many of these super-rich owners of oil-wealth were women, or a family of women without a man, as that of the family of Mollie of three sisters, and Lizzie, her mother.
However, one wonderful reality was that of the blanket. Their lovely, indigenous blankets, wrapped around their bodies, and worn over centuries, would always be around them outside, or in their homes. That was the sign of their deep relationship with the inherited signs and symbols of their community. So much so, Hale calls the women, ‘Blankets’, instead of naming them.
This was a communitarian society which seemed remarkably liberated for women, even while some of them pick up sundry white men as their husbands. Mollie’s mother, who is visited by a big, mythical owl, which is a premonition of death, laments that their race is dying, and white kids with white blood are swarming inside their households.
Greg Palast, an American journalist, has made a documentary, ‘Long Knife: Osage Oil and the New Trail of Tears’, documenting the life and times of the Osage people and how the whites arrived to ravage, plunder and destroy them, with tacit and overt State patronage.
He writes in ‘The Guardian’ (October 20, 2023): ‘“Over the past century, the Osage Nation has continued to suffer massive oil thievery, impoverishment and oil-sludge poisoning on their Oklahoma reservation.
“It’s not over,” Osage principal chief, Geoffrey Standing Bear, tells me. “It’s still happening.” At the heart of it is legal control of Osage native land by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, an entity the Osage call the ‘Ma-he-tah’, or the Long Knife. Standing Bear, a lawyer himself, likens the arrangement to a military occupation.
The Osage’s current misfortunes began in 1894 with, ironically, the discovery of a gigantic oil reservoir under their Oklahoma land. Suddenly, desperately poor Osage became the richest people on Earth.”’
“…But for the US government, that was too much oil and too much money under the control of a people who were not at that time recognised as US citizens. In 1906, the US Congress passed the Burke Act, named after Congressman Charles Burke, who called American Indigenous people ‘half animal’.
“Burke would head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which determined that Osage were not sufficiently competent to handle their new wealth. It assigned each full-blood Osage a white “guardian… These guardians wrote themselves into Osage wills and insurance policies, then systematically murdered their wards and took their oil rights. That’s where ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ ends, in the 1920s…”
Minnie ‘wasting illness’ is slow and suffocating. Her uncaring white husband seems a willful ally in this steady decline of her body. He is clearly eyeing her wealth which he would inherit after her inevitable death.
Hale knows it. His mind works on the same wavelength. Minnie dies eventually. Mollie, her mother, Lizzie, and her sisters, Anna and Reta, are heartbroken.
Not much later, Minnie’s morose husband, Smith, marries Reta. His scheme seems to be unfinished, as yet, or, that is what it seems. Bryon, Hale’s son who does nothing, marries Anna, who becomes an alcoholic. Anna is murdered soon after.
The whole community seems to understand this unstated and sinister scheme, including Mollie and her mother. But, they keep floating in insomnia, trapped and helpless, as if in a nightmare, manipulated in their daily lives by their white partners. And men like William Hale.
As Hale says about the natives: “I love them, but in the turning of the earth, they’re gone.”
So the uncle wants his nephew to get inside one of these ‘houses of women’ and capture their wealth, which would eventually become part of ‘his family’. And it so happens that Mollie falls in love with Ernest, and they marry.
Mollie is suffering from acute diabetes. She hires a private detective to investigate the series of murders. She travels to Washington along with her tribal chiefs and asks the US government to investigate the murders. Hale wants her to “go slow”.
So he gets two unethical medical practitioners to prescribe her a new and innovative invention against diabetes: Insulin. She would be one of the lucky five in the whole world to get it, Hale tells her.
His nephew is out there inside her bedroom to see to it that she never refuses to take it – including using a long, melodramatic monologue to trash traditional medicine as ‘horseshit’ -- and that he loves her like hell.
This is because she trusts him, while she has an uncanny feeling that she is being trapped into a hell-hole. So much so, she sends her children to live elsewhere and confides this secret to her trusted priest in the church.
Then starts the deathly slow poison. Her husband, DiCaprio, adds heroin in her daily injections, as instructed by dear uncle. Her body becomes a living wound and she lives constantly in a haze. She does not really know now what is real as she loses all sense of reality.
She is being poisoned to slow death by her own husband at the behest of his uncle to usurp her wealth, not that her mother is dead. The private detective she hires is bludgeoned by her own husband. He disappears.
After Anna’s murder, the uncle and nephew conspire to murder Reta, her sister, and her white husband. They set up an assassin to plant a bomb in their homes. Their body-limbs flow all over the place. A shattered Ernest sees it all, and discloses the heart-breaking truth to Mollie – who screams like a ravaged animal.
Ernest is guilty to the core, his thick skin is soaked with shameful disgust, his lips are twisted in an eternal, devilish twist, and his brow is lined with worry – but he cares a damn. He has neither will nor character. He knows he is a cog in the wheel, a dog of war, chained by his collar, and he loves the money, it seems, more than his wife and kids.
The twist in the tale is that the idea of justice does visit Fairfax in the form of investigators from the Bureau of Investigation, sent by one J. Edgar Hoover, from the Washington intelligence establishment. This man later becomes the infamous director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His life has been enacted by none other than Leonardo DiCaprio in a famous movie ‘J Edgar’.
White justice is as unjust, half-hearted and incomplete, as the evil which stalked the Osage people. Murderers either go scot-free, or are released from jail much earlier than expected. No one is hanged or given death.
Most of the murders remain unsolved, except that of the family of Mollie. King Hale is released from jail for “good conduct” ; basically, he paid off politicians, we are informed at the end. Ernest too becomes free, living the rest of his life with Bryon in a trailer outside Fairfax. Mollie divorced him long ago.
Director Martin Scorcese has opened a can of deathly nightmares which must stalk the forever guilty conscience and consciousness of the American white establishment and its detached and alienated civil society. The genocides of the indigenous communities are a historical fact in America.
Now, the original inhabitants of this land have been condemned and trapped inside ‘reservations’ outside the glitz of the most advanced capitalist nation, with a flourishing war machine, which has inflicted more damage on parts of the world in terms of mass murders and carnage, than any other government in the post-war, post-Nazi phase. Osage too is now a ‘reservation’.
Martin Scorsese himself comes in at the end of the film and reads the obituary of Mollie. Nothing spectacular, in this small note. She is buried along with her mother, little daughter and two sisters in her homeland. She died at 58. There is no mention of the murders.
The screenplay of this film has been done by Eric Roth and Scorcese. The executive producer of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is produced by Scorsese and Daniel Lupi. Music is by Robbie Robertson.
The film has been scripted after discussions with the Osage community. They say that their struggle for justice, and to preserve their memory and traditions, would continue. The film is adapted from a well-researched book by David Grann, author of epical classic, ‘The Wager’, which has been recently published by The Citizen.