I regularly study Jewish Law with a dear friend from Netanya. A recent topic we discussed was genaivas daas, which translated literally means “stealing of the mind.” The Talmudic Sages explain that this phrase, in fact, refers to the sin of misleading people through words, by giving them a false impression of your motivations. Let’s say your friend expects you to look out for his best interests, and you respond to him in a way that makes him think you are concerned abut his welfare even though you are not. Indeed, you may even want to harm him but you pretend to be his staunch friend. This notion of not being honest with people who trust you is at the core of Killers of the Flower Moon.
The film opens as Osage Indians of Oklahoma discover oil on their property. As a result, they become extremely rich since they retain mineral rights to the land and share oil-lease revenues. But there is a caveat. The court appoints white men, as “legal guardians” to manage the money for the Indians, who are assumed to be “incompetent” in financial matters. This arrangement gives the white men many opportunities to take advantage of the wealthy Indians, who initially trust them.
Ernest Burkhart, nephew of cattle baron William “King” Hale, returns from World War I to live and work for his uncle, a wealthy and well respected man in the community. Hale presents himself as an honest, friendly benefactor of the Osage, even speaking their language. Slowly, however, it becomes apparent that Hale is interested only in the accumulation of wealth, which he thinks he can acquire by eventually inheriting the “headrights” to Osage land. He can do this by encouraging white men under his influence to marry Indian women and then murder them in order to become their beneficiaries.
Ernest, working as a cab driver, meets Mollie, a full-blooded Osage whose family owes oil headrights. They soon marry and have three children. Life then becomes very complicated for Ernest, for he is heavily influenced by Hale, his immediate benefactor. Hale enlists the weak-willed Ernest in his nefarious plans, and. Ernest goes along with him until Hale suggests that Ernest would be better off if his wife were dead.
After many murders, there is no serious local investigation. A representative group of the Osage visit Washington and ask for federal help to ferret out the criminals. Soon after, the newly formed FBI is called in to investigate the killings. It is then that Ernest has a crisis of conscience. Will he continue to cover the crimes of his uncle or will his sincere love for his wife be more influential and compel him to tell the truth?
Jewish law is very clear on such a dilemma. One of the pillars of a just society is truth-telling. Without this basic assumption, society cannot function normally. The Bible instructs us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Just as you want people to be honest with you, so you should be honest with others. Moreover. Scripture states that one “should walk in the ways of God.” His means we should emulate God by being truthful and honoring our commitments. As the Ethics of the Fathers, a classic piece of Jewish wisdom literature, states, our outer and inner personas should be aligned. What we say should accurately reflect who we are. William Hale and Ernest Burkhart do not live by that credo.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a stark tragedy in which we see truth sacrificed on the altar of monetary profits. Although the efforts of the FBI bring some kind of closure to this sad and disturbing story, the misdeeds of many go unpunished.