Yesterday Indiewire‘s Anne Thompson posted an interview with Killers of the Flower Moon screenwriter Eric Roth, and in so doing passed along, for what seemed like the umpteenth time, the story of how Roth and Martin Scorsese‘s 209-minute period melodrama began as one thing (a traditional investigative crime drama) and then became something else (a sprawling white-guilt wokester saga about the the ache of the Osage murder victims in the early 1920s, and particularly the evil of the white Oklahoma yokels).
Leonardo DiCaprio had initially been set to play the intrepid Bureau of Investigation agent Tom White, the guy who ultimately indicted three of the killers but was unable to bring many other killers to justice. (Leo excitedly told me this during a 2019 party at San Vicente Bungalows.) But sometime in early 2020 and perhaps during the beginning of Covid, Leo had a change of heart.
He didn’t want to play White because — let’s be honest — the woke movement had taken hold in progressive Hollywood circles and he didn’t want to be attacked or sneered at for playing a heroic white savior — a politically uncool thing in the Hollywood climate that was then unfolding.
Leo instead wanted to play the none-too-bright Ernest Burkhart, who became complicit in the murders of certain Oklahoma Osage natives by way of his fiendish uncle (Robert De Niro‘s ‘King” Hale), and who also came close to murdering his own Osage native wife, Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone).
“At the beginning, Scorsese and Roth embraced a real John Ford Western,” Thompson writes.
Roth: “The early versions of the KOTFM screenplay were as much about Tom White as they were about the crime and everything else, and in that sense they were closer to the book. So it wasn’t a mystery in that sense.
“But then Marty began to express a bigger thing, which he’s so right about. It’s not a ‘who done it’ — it’s ‘who didn’t do it.’ As a social comment.”
God save Joe and Jane Popcorn from “social comment”, or more specifically social instruction.
Marty and Leo’s idea, in other words (allow me to offer an interpretation), was that we’re all guilty…all of us…back then and today.
In the same way that Randy Newman, in his 1970 song “Rednecks“, expanded the concept of racist attitudes and behaviors from the rural south to the entire country (“We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground”), Killers of the Flower Moon would essentially serve as an indictment of white racism all over, in every nook and cranny of the country…we’re all dirty and guilty and reprehensible as fuck.
There’s no way the wokesters would come after Marty, Eric and Leo if they made a movie like this, the thinking presumably went, but if they made a “hooray for Tom White” flick, they might be indicted or semi-cancelled for being old-fashioned or blind to the new woke enlightenment or whatever.
Sometime in early ’20 or thereabouts, Roth got a call from Scorsese. “Are you sitting down?” Marty said. “Because Leo has a big idea.”
Roth: “Leo didn’t want to be the great white savior. Very smart. And the more complicated part was the husband [Ernest Burkhart] and complicated for many reasons, but probably the most interesting is somebody who’s in love with somebody and trying to kill them.
“We always embraced [Mollie] as the centerpiece of the movie.” [HE to Roth: Why? She doesn’t say anything or do anything — she’s completely passive.] “We had many, many things that dealt with the Osage, the Osage customs, the Osage world.”
In fact Leo’s decision to submit to woke sensibilities (and Marty and Eric’s decision to go along with this) ensured that Killers of the Flower Moon would become a long, half-mystifying, eye-rolling, ass-punishing slog — a guilt trip movie without any story tension to speak of.
And here we are now, unlikely to bestow any top-tier awards** upon KOTFM except, most likely and very depressingly, the Best Actress Oscar to Gladstone for basically playing a passive victim of few words, a sad-eyed lady of the oil-rich lowlands who sits around in native blankets and gives dirty looks to all the evil crackers as Leo injects her with poisoned insulin…fascinating!
** Except for the musical score by the late Robbie Robertson — this is likely to win.