A Martin Scorsese release cycle follows a familiar rhythm, and with Killers of the Flower Moon finally in theaters, we are—to quote one of his favorite film franchises—in the endgame now.
When the legendary filmmaker returns with a new opus, you can almost set your watch around the beats that follow. Rapturous festival praise. Pedantic debates about violence and morality. A round of thoughtful profiles. Less thoughtful “ctrl-F ‘marvel’” aggregation from said profiles. Childish mewling over runtimes. Underrated-Scorsese-films debates. And so on. This time around, the opening-weekend reactions have thrown a few unforeseen curveballs to the post-release-afterglow discourse—who could have imagined a three-scene Brendan Fraser performance would be so controversial?
But there’s one decision made in the film that’s destined to become a bigger and bigger talking point the more people see it: The ending. (Major spoilers for Killers of the Flower Moon follow, as do some minor spoilers for The Departed.)
In Flower Moon’s final minutes, King Hale, Ernest Burkhardt, and their associates are finally brought to justice for conspiring to kill off Osage citizens for profit. The story effectively ends there—but instead of text solemnly summarizing the remainder of each character’s life—a based-on-true-events standard Scorsese himself has used before—the action abruptly jumps forward from the 1920s to the mid-20th-century, to depict the recording of a live radio show dramatizing the events we’ve just witnessed, complete with caricature-eseque line-readings and an all-white audience savoring the theatrics. Different performers (including special guest Jack White) read off the fates of Hale and Burkhardt, but for Mollie Burkhardt, the maestro himself steps from behind the curtain. Martin Scorsese himself appears onscreen as a performer who informs the audience that Mollie divorced Ernest and eventually succumbed to diabetes, and that her obituary made absolutely no mention of the Osage murders.
It’s a bold, disorienting and thoroughly effective choice; a meta-refraction that implicates the movie itself alongside the historical radio drama it’s satirizing. What we’ve just watched is a thoughtful, nuanced, respectful and sensitive depiction of a tragedy that history failed to recognize in a significant manner. It’s also a $200 million film made for a tech company, co-written and directed by a white man, starring two of Hollywood’s most famous actors, filled with humor, drama and an explosion to liven things up. At the end of the day, Scorsese seems to be acknowledging the inherent critiques that even a movie as sophisticated in its aims as this one will invite—that on a base level, it’s still turning the suffering of real people into entertainment just like that radio show did, complete with rock-star cameos. It’s an auteur in his 80s fretting about how much (or how little) cinema can do.