- Leonardo DiCaprio switched roles to avoid Killers of the Flower Moon becoming a white-savior film, with the film’s focus shifting to the Osage victims and their relationships.
- DiCaprio’s decision to play Ernest Burkhart allowed the film to explore the Osage experience more deeply, particularly through Burkhart’s relationship with his wife Mollie.
- The film’s essential themes revolve around Mollie and the question of whether her husband truly loves her or would harm her if necessary.
When Leonardo DiCaprio first became attached to Killers of the Flower Moon, the film adaptation of David Grann’s nonfiction book of the same name, in 2017, DiCaprio was set to play the then-featured role of Thomas White, the FBI agent who led the federal investigation into the 1920s Osage Nation murders. This was in keeping with the structure and tone of the book, which is mainly told from the point of view of the FBI.
However, during the development process of what is possibly director Martin Scorsese’s magnum opus, DiCaprio and the filmmaker became increasingly concerned that Killers of the Flower Moon would become a white-savior film by focusing on the FBI investigation. To avoid this, DiCaprio switched to the role of the murderous Ernest Burkhart, while Scorsese and screenwriter Eric Roth shifted the film’s primary focus from the FBI investigation to the Osage victims and the relationship between Burkhart and Burkhart’s Osage wife, Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone, whose performance has been hailed as being perhaps the film’s strongest element.
Leonardo DiCaprio Didn’t Want the FBI to Be the Primary Focus of Killers of the Flower Moon
In what is possibly Leonardo DiCaprio’s best movie yet, his decision to abandon the role of FBI agent Thomas White in Killers of the Flower Moon in favor of playing Ernest Burkhart was grounded in DiCaprio’s belief that the project, in its original FBI-focused incarnation, wasn’t sufficiently grounded in the core of the real-life story, which involves an elaborate plot to murder various Osage Nation members to gain control of the Osage oil head-rights.
While the initial decision to make FBI agent Thomas White the film’s main protagonist represented a faithful adaptation of the acclaimed 2017 nonfiction book on which the film is based, this didn’t feel right to DiCaprio and director Martin Scorsese, who thought that the film adaptation needed to be deeply embedded within the Osage tribal community.
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Accordingly, DiCaprio turned his attention to the role of Burkhart, a World War I veteran who became a hitman for his uncle, William Hale, in Hale’s plot to kill Osage Nation members for their oil wealth. In the film, Burkhart marries an Osage woman, Mollie, who eventually suspects that Burkhart intends to kill her.
When the decision was made to shift the film’s focus away from the FBI investigation to the relationship between Burkhart and Mollie, White became a supporting character in the movie, in which White, played by Jesse Plemons, first appears within the film’s final hour. By making Burkhart the film’s main protagonist, Killers of the Flower Moon developed a much more intimate perspective than it would have with White as the protagonist. While the Osage murders are obviously essential to the film, experiencing this tragedy through the point-of-view of Burkhart and Mollie is much more personal than telling the story from the perspective of White, whose priority is to bring the Osage Nation murderers to justice.
Killers of the Flower Moon Became More of a Love Story Than a Crime Drama
When Leonardo DiCaprio made the fateful decision to play the role of Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon instead of Thomas White, this transition enabled Killers of the Flower Moon to explore the Osage experience more deeply through Burkhart and his relationship with wife Mollie, whose role in the film is much more prominent than it would have otherwise been if White had remained as the film’s main protagonist.
As Burkhart’s direct participation in the despicable Osage Nation murder plot makes Burkhart an increasingly reprehensible protagonist, Mollie, played so powerfully by Lily Gladstone, who will campaign for Best Actress at the Oscars, becomes the film’s most conventional and relatable protagonist.
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The potent drama that arises both from Burkhart’s anguish regarding his actions and Mollie’s increasing suspicions of Burkhart’s motives wouldn’t exist if DiCaprio had played the role of White. Moreover, given that Killers of the Flower Moon hardly functions as a whodunit, the film generates much more suspense through the increasingly complex relationship between Burkhart and Mollie than if the film had revolved around the FBI investigation.
Ultimately, the film’s essential themes are most clearly embodied within Mollie and the basic question of whether her husband truly loves her or would murder her if he found that necessary.
Killers of the Flower Moon Might Be a Better Film if DiCaprio Had Played Thomas White
The debate over how different a film Killers of the Flower Moon would be if Leonardo DiCaprio had remained in the role of Thomas White was recently reignited by legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader, a longtime collaborator and friend of Martin Scorsese. In a recent interview, Schrader stated his belief that Killers of the Flower Moon would be a better film if DiCaprio had played White instead of Ernest Burkhart. Regarding DiCaprio’s presence in the film, Schrader said:
“I would have preferred Leonardo DiCaprio to play the role of the cop in Killers of the Flower Moon rather than the role of the idiot. Spending three-and-a-half hours in the company of an idiot is a long time.”
Regardless, DiCaprio had a substantial effect on the creative direction of Killers of the Flower Moon by virtue of his mere attachment. While DiCaprio delivers a powerful performance in the film, the question remains of how different Killers of the Flower Moon would be if DiCaprio’s unparalleled star power hadn’t necessitated the entire movie to be built around him. Killers of the Flower Moon will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on Jan. 12.