Killers of the Flower Moon Normalizes Patriarchy, Romanticizes Abuse

Susana Rinderle
11 min readMar 7, 2024
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. Paramount

I didn’t want to see Killers of the Flower Moon. I knew enough about the film and the Reign of Terror to know I didn’t want to put more images of whites brutalizing indigenous people in my brain.

But I saw it anyway. I’m a zealous movie fan, and I prep for Oscar night like it’s the final exam for my favorite year-long college course. I figured I could tolerate witnessing more fictional depictions of racial violence if the Osage could tolerate the real-life version. I figured the beauty and importance of the film might outweigh the pain of the brutality. I also figured there would be some satisfaction by the end, given the previews.

I was wrong, on all counts. As indigenous actor Devery Jacobs said, Killers of the Flower Moon is a “hellfire” of a movie. But what hurt my heart most was its normalization of patriarchy and romanticization of domestic violence.

To my surprise, the murders were far less graphic than I expected. Instead of watching humans brutalize each other, we mostly see the gory aftermath of racial violence (including a bizarre, gratuitous scene of an autopsy in the woods with the public gawking at Anna Brown’s naked pried-open ribcage). But the sexism was both blithe and unrelenting from beginning to end.

Previews and promotional images for Killers of the Flower Moon made this seem like a love story. They implied that Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) joins Mollie (Lily Gladstone) and her family to defeat the powerful evil white men. But he doesn’t, and this is not a love story.

First, we’re given no sense of who the Osage woman Mollie Kyle is, nor who any of the Native women (or men) are as full human beings. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese raises interesting questions about their personhood but leaves most unanswered. Nearly all Mollie’s scenes show her suffering: Mollie stoically bearing pain or humiliation, Mollie wailing with grief, Mollie writhing helpless and sweaty alone in bed, Mollie embracing her husband after learning he killed her sister.

Previews and promotional images made this seem like a love story. They implied that Ernest joins Mollie and her family to defeat the powerful evil white men.

But he doesn’t, and this is not a love story.

But why? We get no backstory, no sense of her interiority, no three-dimensional humanity. It’s as if Scorsese simply wants us to take at face value that being indigenous — especially an indigenous woman — is just fucked up and hard. Nothing else to see here!

As a non-person, it’s taken for granted that Mollie falls in “love” with Ernest. But why on Mother Earth she does is beyond me. Mollie is beautiful, financially prosperous, and deeply connected to her community. At the beginning of the film, she’s smart, savvy, and self-possessed, and accurately calls Ernest a “coyote” to her girlfriends. But we never learn why she changes her mind and develops feelings for him. Ernest has nothing to offer her — no money, education, intelligence, status, or connections beyond his wealthy uncle Bill “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro). His work ethic consists of scheming and stealing. He isn’t bright, well-spoken, or good-looking (this is 49-year-old Leo with ooky prosthetics, not 23-year-old Titanic Leo). There’s no indication he’s well-endowed or great in the sack.

So why him? Was it his race? Are we supposed to take for granted that whiteness is enough for a woman of color to fall for a white man? According to Killers of the Flower Moon, all a white man must do to successfully woo a woman of color above his station is silently drive her around town, then go to her house and “compliment” her skin color over a hot beverage.


Same story with the other Osage women in the film, who are treated as props — like paper dolls surrounding cardboard cartoon Mollie. Who was Mollie’s mom, Lizzie Q? Why did she favor her other daughter, Anna, and was so spiteful towards Mollie? Why was Anna so “liberated”, yet constantly drunk? Why were all the other Osage women marrying these slimy, lazy, unattractive, white colonizers? Why don’t they flirt with the gorgeous, smart, hard-working indigenous John Wren (Tatanka Means)? We never find out.

This film portrays a historical event that’s about women at its core, yet it barely passes the Bechdel test. It’s a film about men’s calculated scheming, gaslighting, and murder of Native women for money, yet seen entirely through the abusers’ eyes. (And the only two white women, Hale’s wife and daughter, are so flimsy they should have been eliminated entirely. Why did we need to see the wife emerge from the wallpaper just once — to defend her husband?)

Meanwhile, Osage men are virtually absent from Killers of the Flower Moon. Where (and who) were they, other than driving white guys around, drinking, and dancing shirtless in a shower of oil? Why did Mollie and her first husband split? What happened to the Osage leaders and the council? How did they respond to the murders and meddling? What was the pipe about, and did it stay buried? WTF was up with the owl? With the drum circle at the end? We’re given snapshots of tired tropes seen through a white gaze with no depth or curiosity. Perhaps we’re supposed to take for granted that Native men are just absent or deficient in masculinity.

Sad Indians, drunk Indians, stoic Indians, dead Indians. That’s what we’re given in in Killers of the Flower Moon. This is how far we’ve come, 34 years after Dances With Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. This is where we are, eight years after the Standing Rock water protectors made national news.

Second, we’re encouraged to see Ernest as a full human being and sympathize with him despite his violence. This man does horrible things. He robs and abuses the Osage even before — and during — his courtship of Mollie. He does the bidding of his uncle to ingratiate himself with Mollie and her family, marry her, and murder them for their money.

At first I was concerned for Ernest because I thought he was a naïve bumpkin being manipulated by his cunning uncle. Then I saw he was unfazed, even delighted, by committing crimes. So I thought maybe he was an illiterate simpleton that didn’t fully grasp what he was doing. Then I saw him read and learn to speak Osage. Finally, I realized he knew exactly what he was doing, and that I was being gaslit — along with Mollie.

This is the kind of bullshit that encourages women to take pity on dangerous men even as they torture and murder us. This is the kind of manipulation that creates systems where such men avoid accountability. Where abusers are portrayed as complex and nuanced, and their victims as stick figures. “Each of the Osage characters felt painfully underwritten, while the white men were given way more courtesy and depth,” wrote Jacobs. I agree.

This is the kind of bullshit that encourages women to take pity on dangerous men even as they torture and murder us. The kind of manipulation that creates systems where such men avoid accountability. Where abusers are portrayed as complex and nuanced, and their victims as stick figures.

In fairness, there are gaps in the on-screen character development of both Hale and Ernest. We get no insight into why Ernest professes to love money so much. And we’re never shown why Hale is so vile, or how a father to a daughter can so coldly order the murder of women (because racism?). As a father himself, we witness Ernest have a change of heart when baby Anna, his youngest child with Mollie, dies. Like in real life, this seems to be a turning point when he begins pushing back (sort of) on his uncle. But why? We never see Ernest being a dad or giving two shits about his children. We do see him slowly killing their mother with syringes filled with poison, while we’re asked to believe he loves all of them. (“I did it because I love her so much” say the wife beaters and murderers.)

Double barf. More gaslighting.

Third, we’re invited to see the relationship between Ernest and Mollie as a love story when it’s anything but. Not only are they on far from equal footing in how their humanity is portrayed, but theirs is a relationship rife with abuse and trauma.

Even the film’s Osage language consultant, Christopher Cote, had “strong opinions” about the movie, saying, “As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but…this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart, and they kind of give him this conscience and…depict that there’s love. But when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that’s not love.”

Here’s the “love story” in Killers of the Flower Moon: A woman falls for a lesser man for no discernible reason. The woman becomes small, defers to that man, avoids questioning him, and ignores her intuition. Bad things start happening. The woman doesn’t tell her friends or family, and she avoids asking anyone but the man for help. The man starts murdering the woman and her family. She clings to him harder. The man goes to jail. The woman meets the man in a field while he’s on trial and allows him contact with their children. The man is convicted (despite a rather loosey-goosey system that apparently allows close, unsupervised contact between men on trial and their friends, victims, and co-defendants). The end.


This is a classic abuse arc. It’s many things, but it’s not love. It’s gaslighting, manipulation, narcissism, sociopathy, patriarchy, and white supremacy. I’ve seen it to some degree in the lives of most women I’ve known. I’ve lived it myself more than once. (With the murder, jail, and children more figurative than literal — usually.)

Watching this arc celebrated and romanticized on screen is neither entertaining nor useful. In Killers of the Flower Moon, there is no meaningful exploration of what was driving Mollie or Ernest, or keeping them together. There’s no true connection, insight, growth, or redemption, just dysfunction. DiCaprio and Scorsese said they chose to focus on the couple — but that couple’s story had no juice. It was just another promising woman going for a loser who literally poisons her.


At the end, during the climax where Ernest finally admits his actions, neither Mollie nor the audience get any satisfaction. We don’t get to see the moment Mollie realizes what her husband had been doing to her. We don’t get to see her face when he tells her the truth. Either one of those scenes might have granted Gladstone the opportunity to deliver some truly Oscar-worthy performances.

Instead, we get a shot of the door swinging after she exits the room. And another of Ernest’s face. Even in Mollie’s final moment of triumph and clarity, the focus is on the abuser.

I don’t know DiCaprio or Scorsese, but based on their public history with women, it might be fair to say neither is particularly skilled in relating to us. In this film, it shows. DiCaprio acknowledges that Mollie and Ernest’s story was “twisted” but the love he claims was present was not apparent on screen, nor was the full human toll or effect on the Osage community he purported to spotlight.

I don’t believe art should always be historically accurate, politically correct, or demographically representational. I don’t begrudge Scorsese the right to make whatever film tickles his creative fancy. And I don’t wish everyone to feel the same way I do about Killers of the Flower Moon or any other artistic expression.

What I do wish is that we stop lauding mediocre art that celebrates clichés, even and especially when it’s created by an esteemed artist. We don’t need another movie made by white men based on a book written by a white man telling the story of women and people of color. While both brilliant actors, we don’t need another round of DeNiro being DeNiro, or Leo channeling versions of his past roles with a dose of Marlon Brando.

This movie offers us nothing new. There’s nothing poetic, educational, or cathartic. It’s not healing, enlightening, humanizing, or entertaining — just trauma porn of stereotypical white men being vile to two-dimensional women of color.

Three-and-a-half hours was plenty of time to do this topic justice and produce a fresher, more interesting film. If Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to truly show the human toll of the Reign of Terror, they could have brought this epic into the present, or told its story across generations. They could have helped transmute harm with a vengeful rewriting of history like Tarantino’s brutal but genius Django Unchained, Inglorious Basterds, or Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.

Such an approach would be artful and contribute something meaningful to our collective consciousness, and we need meaning, consciousness, and truth more than ever. The full truth of the Osage Murders — largely missing from this film — is that Ernest Burkhart only served 11 years in prison and was pardoned in 1966 (after serving more time for burglary). He died a free man at 94 on what would have been Mollie’s 100th birthday. His brother Byron, an accomplice to Anna’s murder, never served time. Bill Hale showed no remorse, served 18 years before he was paroled, and died in a nursing home in 1962.

These fuckers died unrepentant, free men while Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated since 1977. Scorsese should make a film about that.

This movie offers us nothing new. There’s nothing poetic, educational, or cathartic. It’s not healing, enlightening, humanizing, or entertaining — just trauma porn of stereotypical white men being vile to two-dimensional women of color.

I did my duty. I watched the film. The Academy Award votes are in, and the winners will be revealed this Sunday. Thankfully it’s not expected to win, but could we please stop nominating films like Killers of the Flower Moon for awards?

As an alternative, want a fresh, riveting film with powerful racial commentary? That’s also brilliantly written and directed, beautifully filmed, and superbly acted? And created by a person of color, based on a book written by another person of color? Look no further than American Fiction — a superior movie which should have received far more nominations and wins than it has.

Speaking of wins, I don’t begrudge Lily Gladstone her Golden Globe. But I gnashed my teeth that Reservation Dogs, one of the best television shows of the past decade — which also had all-Native writers, directors, cast, and crew — wasn’t nominated for either a Globe or Emmy in its final two seasons. Not only do Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi know how to tell a hilarious, heartwarming, and heartbreaking story about indigenous people (because they’re indigenous), they know how to depict women and queer people of diverse ages with depth, honesty, and respect.

In fact, Gladstone’s performance as Hokti in “Rez Dogs” is on a par with her acting in Killers of the Flower Moon, but far fewer people saw, or appreciated, the former. Those same people probably voted for Gladstone to win this year’s acting Oscar, perhaps partially motivated by racial reparations, even though Emma Stone deserves it more for her jaw-dropping performance in Poor Things.

But it’s not Gladstone’s fault. She’s likely capable of a jaw-dropping performance too if provided with the right material and direction. But, as in life, if we’re only given superficialities and clichés to work with, that’s all we can deliver. As Jacobs — who starred in Reservation Dogs — tweeted, “Indig ppl [sic] exist beyond our grief, trauma & atrocities. Our pride for being Native, our languages, cultures, joy & love are way more interesting & humanizing than showing the horrors white men inflicted on us.”

Representation and excellence aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s lift up art that achieves both. Let’s stop celebrating tired, old, white, male stories we’ve already seen. And let’s stop romanticizing abuse and calling it love.



Susana Rinderle

I write about civilization, personal healing, dating, politics, and the workplace. You know, light topics! I'm a trauma-informed coach.