Knowledge and Ignorance in Chinatown and Killers of the Flower Moon

2024-01-05 ☼ cultureblog

A detective arrives in town to investigate a series of murders, eventually discovering a shocking conspiracy that extends into the upper echelons of society. The distorted outline of a classic noir is discernible somewhere within Killers of the Flower Moon. Not as sharply present as it might have been in an earlier draft of the script that had Leonardo diCaprio as the FBI agent, and perhaps preserved more of the surprise in the original text. David Grann’s book builds to the reveal that William King Hale (played by Robert DeNiro in the film) has orchestrated the slaughter of the Osage nation in order to obtain the rights to their oil-rich land. Scorsese’s adaptation, by contrast, never tries to convince the audience to believe in Hale’s superficial performance of friendship, prioritising suspense (waiting to find out when and how the victims of his duplicity will learn the truth) over surprise (which, Philip Pullman points out in Daemon Voices, is the precise opposite of suspense”).1 The audience always knows more than the other characters, a position of epistomological superiority that is underlined by Scorsese’s tendency to spoon-feed us the incriminatory evidence, frequently cutting to show how a murder happened at the very moment it is referenced in the narrative.

In a typical crime story, the audience learns alongside the detective, whose movement from ignorance to knowledge defines the structural shape of the genre. Michael Eaton calls this the gnostic imperative”, and identifies Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes as a prototypical example. Gittes is hired to trail a supposedly adulterous husband, but soon finds himself investigating a murder. He does not know who is responsible for the death of Hollis Mulwray at first, and nor do we. Together, we start to accumulate insight into a conspiracy at the upper echelons of L.A. society. The audience of Killers of the Flower Moon always knows more than the audience of Chinatown. Despite this structural contrast, both films share a thematic interest in a different aspect of knowledge: the decision to look away, to choose ignorance instead of learning the truth. This is one of the symbolic properties of the titular Chinatown: it represents a location that operates by its own rules, where, as Eaton puts it, it is better not to act, much better not to know”. In Chinatown, the police do not investigate crimes too carefully, because wilful ignorance is preferable to the consequences of knowledge. They turn a blind eye — an idiomatic expression that is concretised in the film’s damaged eyes” motif.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart chooses not to ask exactly what substance he is injecting into the veins of his wife Molly, in order to maintain the iota of deniability that will allow him to live with his actions. At the same time, Molly (played by Lily Gladstone) chooses to look away from her husband’s ulterior motives, even though his interest in her wealth is transparently clear from the very beginning of their relationship, in order to continue receiving his affection. That relationship comes to an end when she realises she cannot continue to turn a blind eye — while Ernest chooses to continue living in Chinatown.

  1. Take the unloved MCU property Eternals: on the Big Picture Podcast, Joanna Robinson suggested that the clunky heel turn of Richard Madden’s Ikaris would have worked better if the film had chosen suspense (we find out before the rest of the characters and wonder how and when they will figure it out) over surprise (we thought he was good, but hey! It turns out he is not good).↩︎