How “Killers of the Flower Moon”‘s Ending Ties the Past and Present Together
Watch out! This post contains spoilers.
Martin Scorsese‘s “Killers of the Flower Moon” takes a true-crime narrative and flips it on its head. The movie, based on author David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, debuted in theaters on Oct. 20 and tells the true story of the murders of Osage Indians and the FBI investigation that finally identified some of the culprits. The involvement of the FBI – which was then just called the Bureau of Investigation – is a major part of the book; Grann’s tome is subtitled “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” The book is a well-crafted true-crime story, and finding out who committed the murders is a shocking twist, but Scorsese takes a different perspective on the same material.
The identity of the killers is immediately apparent in the film. The FBI doesn’t come into the picture until the movie’s last act. And then there’s the ending: Scorsese wraps up “Killers of the Flower Moon” with a visit to an old-timey radio show that tells the same story the movie is focused on. Then, he returns his lens to the Osage one last time before the credits roll.
I personally loved this ending. The radio show is smart, caustic, and shocking, linking our present-day true-crime obsession with that of the past. The moment made me dig deeper into the history Scorsese was invoking, and the Osage’s dance acts as the perfect balance to its cynicism. Ahead, I break down what the radio show ending is, its historical precedents, the Osage’s dance, and why it all works so well to wrap up “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon”‘s Radio-Show Ending
At the end of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone) confronts her husband, Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), about how he was secretly poisoning her. After admitting to helping kill all her sisters and many other Osage, this is the one thing Ernest cannot confess to. Mollie then leaves him.
The movie then makes a jarring cut to a live radio show that’s also telling the story of what happened to the Osage. The show uses different voice actors, inventive (and often ridiculous) sound effects, and witty narration to finish the tale, noting what happened to Mollie, Ernest, William Hale (Robert De Niro), and some of the other characters. Hale, the mastermind behind the murders, was eventually let out on parole; Ernest received a life sentence but was ultimately pardoned; and Mollie died before either of them in 1937.
But these sad facts are undercut by the absurd way in which they’re told via the radio show. A white actor imitating a Native American man speaks at a stereotypical and offensive slow pace. The sound effects are jarring. The tale gets none of the dignity and gravitas it deserves. And then, the narrator of the radio show turns out to be Scorsese himself, who steps onto the stage to wrap up this story for audiences listening at home.
Scorsese’s radio show is clearly inspired by real radio shows that were ubiquitous in the early days of the FBI. The Bureau’s head J. Edgar Hoover was aware that reputation was everything, so he was intent on spreading propaganda about the FBI and the supposed glorious mission of its detectives in as many ways as possible. One way they did that was with the radio show “G-Men” (the slang word for government agents), which was eventually renamed “Gang Busters.” The show ran from 1935 to 1957. Every episode of the program, which told stories of FBI detectives as well as other police forces, boasted that they featured true, authorized accounts of crimes – and how the criminals were ultimately caught – directly from law enforcement. The third episode of this series, titled “The Osage Indian Murders,” focused on the murders of Mollie’s family and aired in August 1935, per pop culture historian Martin Grams. While the audio of that episode is hard to locate, other episodes of “Gang Busters” are available to listen to online, and they have the same characteristics.
Heartbreaking, complicated cases are whittled down into about 30 minutes, sandwiched between ads and sound effects. The ultimate hero is the FBI agent or cop who catches the bad guys. Thanks to the “G-Men” radio show, just 10 years after the FBI first (finally) began investigating the Osage murders, they had already turned those same crimes into FBI propaganda meant to entertain audiences nationwide and bolster the reputation of the Bureau. And the FBI would do it again.
The 1959 film “The FBI Story,” starring Jimmy Stewart, partially adapted the story of the Osage Reign of Terror, moving the action to Wade County, OK. But that movie – which Hoover was very much involved in – focused on a fictional FBI agent, Chip Hardesty, and his wife’s struggles as he dedicates himself to the work the FBI does. What happened to the Osage doesn’t matter in the end.
So when Scorsese takes us to this fictional radio show in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he invokes the history of how the Osage’s tragedy has been treated. But he also indicts Grann and himself; did they just make another true-crime tale that takes advantage of their grief? The filmmaker doesn’t answer the question.
Digging into the history of these radio shows, I couldn’t help but think of modern shows like “Law & Order: SVU,” “Criminal Minds,” the “FBI” series, and other cop shows that often brag about how their cases are “ripped from the headlines.” Real, complicated tragedies are flattened to simple morality plays where the police and prosecutors always come out on top. True-crime podcasts, which churn out a case of the week and often feature witty banter between hosts, often similarly make entertainment out of real pain.
“Killers of the Flower Moon”‘s Dance Ending
Scorsese doesn’t leave us with just the radio show at the end of the movie. He includes one more scene of the Osage in the present day, dancing in circles. The round dance is a common step among Native Americans, and it’s evolved into a community celebration and time of togetherness, per Powwows.com. The Osage have a special ceremonial round dance they performed called I’n-Lon-Schka.
By including this dance as the last shot, Scorsese emphasizes that despite all the pain, murder, and anguish, the Osage have continued on. But the legacy of the murders lives on, too. Speaking to Forbes in an interview published on Oct. 18, the director explained that it was only when he started to meet Osage people that he understood the Reign of Terror as an “ongoing situation.” “In other words, these are things that weren’t discussed in the generation I was talking to,” he explained. “This happened to the generation before them or before them, and the descendants are still there.”
Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” conclusion brings the story to today and ties the legacy together. The film may be a tragic tale, but the story of the Osage Nation is more complicated and vibrant than that. They’re not a relic of the past but still alive and vital.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is in theaters now.