The Disturbing True Story Behind Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

The director’s next adaptation will chronicle one of America’s worst unsolved criminal conspiracies.
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By  · Published on April 13th, 2020

Martin Scorsese’s next true-crime adaptation could be heading to a streaming service, a la The Irishman. The Wall Street Journal reports that Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, has gone over budget, and Paramount isn’t willing to cover the costs. Therefore, Scorsese and his team are talking with Netflix, Apple, and other parties to raise the rest of the funds.

Killers of the Flower Moon won’t have any problem finding a streaming service to help shoulder the costs. Especially considering that the film is going to be the kind of epic, sprawling mystery that Scorsese excels at, meaning that it will likely gain some attention come awards season. The movie is also inspired by one of the darkest criminal conspiracies in American history, dubbed the “Reign of Terror,” and it’s a story that deserves to be known.

Based on David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the film will explore the string of assassinations involving the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma in the 1920s. To this day, most of the cases are unsolved. The film’s title is a reference to an Osage saying that describes taller plants overgrowing and cutting off the light and water of the smaller spring flowers, causing them to die in the process. That’s also a fitting metaphor for the case.

The chilling story is one of greed, racial prejudice, and murder, set during a time when America was entering the modern world but still clinging onto the frontier culture mindset in some areas.

It all started when the Osage people discovered an oil depository buried beneath their land, which resulted in the impoverished natives becoming wealthy overnight. However, the Osage were deemed incompetent by the government and forced to enter into guardianships with their white neighbors, essentially forcing them to share the oil money.

Being deemed useless by the government and ordered to split the proceeds with their so-called civilized guardians was bad enough, but the Osage’s wealth caught the attention of some truly rotten people. Afterward, they started getting murdered at a horrific rate.

Local law enforcement turned a blind eye to the bloodshed, eventually causing the federal government to get involved. Led by a young J. Edgar Hoover, the feds found themselves facing a challenging case that got ugly real quick, with many victims getting caught in the crossfire.

The book chronicles several murders, starting with the Burkhart family. After the corpse of their daughter, Anna Brown, was discovered in a ravine with a bullet in the back of her head, it didn’t take long until more family members were dispatched. A couple of them were poisoned, while others were involved in an explosion.

When the murders began increasing, Hoover and his team took notice. The investigator then sent Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, out to Oklahoma to investigate, but he had to remain undercover upon arrival. The Ranger subsequently recruited local criminals — bootleggers, moonshiners, cattle raiders — to help with the case. This led the authorities to William K. Hale, their prime suspect.

Hale was a former cattleman who became a deputy sheriff and a prominent figure in organized crime. He was known for intimidating, lying, and bullying people in the local community, and he pretty much controlled everyone and everything in the local area at the time.

The crime lord’s influence even extended to medical professionals. The reason why he was able to cover up the poisonings was because the region’s doctors were in on the ploy as well. Furthermore, the locals were either in Hale’s pocket or so terrified of him that they refused to talk to the investigators.

Hale also had a connection to the Burkhart family. His nephew was Ernest Burkhart, a white man who was married to Anna’s sister, Mollie. The murders were carried out in a specific order so Ernest would eventually inherit the family’s headrights, which Hale could then take advantage of.

It turned out that Hale and Ernest were in on the scheme together, though the nephew eventually testified against his uncle and helped get him sent to prison. With Hale behind bars, the case was wrapped up and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was established. That wasn’t the end of the story, though, and there might never be one.

Grann’s investigation discovered that hundreds of murders remain unsolved to this day. In fact, you could even say that they were brushed under the rug and forgotten by the law and history. The FBI’s findings revealed that at least two dozen slayings happened between 1921 and 1926. Grann’s findings, meanwhile, discovered that the “Reign of Terror” lasted for decades.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating story that probes much more than the murders it revolves around. It chronicles a unique period in American history, where widespread law and order hadn’t yet been established, and the ways of the Wild West still informed some parts of the country. It’s also a story of racial injustice, stemming all the way from the top of the government.

Grann’s book does its best to lend a voice to the victims whose stories have become a footnote in history. It serves as a factual catalog of those whose lives were taken, but Grann doesn’t treat the victims like statistics, either. While Scorsese’s movie adaptation will undoubtedly be a compelling and entertaining crime drama, it’s also an opportunity to do right by the victims and let the audience get an idea of who they were as people.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.