A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Last year’s “Wind River” saw the completion of writer Taylor Sheridan’s “frontier trilogy,” which included “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water.” Those projects, along with gaining him acclaim as a writer and later as a director with “Wind River,” provided a collective image of a wild America that focused on mega businesses and low-key outlaws as new leads in the modern western. But those acclaimed movies feel like appetizers compared to the new 10-episode series “Yellowstone,” his biggest project yet. Co-created with John Linson, it's jam-packed with the contents that have made Sheridan's previous stories so exciting to wide audiences, but it’s also more of a mess. And yet, “Yellowstone” still prevails as a compelling study of power, while it chews on what really makes a cowboy in 2018.
“Yellowstone,” in the first three episodes directed by Sheridan and screened for press, concerns a patch of land in Montana that’s as big as Rhode Island, and is owned by a man named John Dutton. Kevin Costner is perfectly cast as the charismatic, extremely wealthy patriarch, who has toughened his three sons and one daughter after their mother passed when they were young (a traumatic event alluded to in later episodes). But Costner plays him with the softness that makes him so compelling, equally believable when threatening to kill someone as he is hiding in a horse stable to be alone with his feelings. A type of vulnerable mob boss with a cowboy hat, Dutton considers himself a true cowboy, while his family business brands cattle and new workers alike.
The Dutton brothers do make for an interesting reflection of their father: Jamie (Wes Bentley) has been living a more clean-cut life in the hope of becoming a politician, but he doesn’t have the forcefulness of his cowboy brothers. Lee (Dave Annable) has been a type of assistant to his father for years, the most loyal of them (and in turn, the most forgettable). But then there’s Kayce (Luke Grimes), who has become removed from the Duttons while living on the reservation with his wife Monica (Kelsey Asbille) and a son that’s never met his grandfather. All of these brothers, who take a first-hand part in the bureaucratic and sometimes physical fight against those who want the family's land, are good. But keeping track of the Dutton boys provides the first inkling that “Yellowstone” is needlessly overstuffed.
When it comes to Reilly’s Beth, she reminds me that Sheridan has often choked when writing for women, whether they’re meant to be in charge of his plots or not (Elizabeth Olsen in "Wind River" comes to mind). Making for the hammiest supporting character, in a way that Reilly does seem to have some fun with, the pseudo-matriarch Beth recalls Faye Dunaway’s ball-busting, intense character in “Network,” as if Sheridan can’t negotiate a more nuanced idea of complicated toughness. And there’s a glaring flaw too with Asbille as Monica/Kayce's wife, who despite experiencing what the press notes rightly call a “Shakespearean” drama (no spoilers), does not have the same care put into her character as the others, spending most of her time as a mere support to Kayce.
As "Yellowstone" ambitiously loads up on conflict, Dutton faces contention from various sides, including a ritzy condo business being spearheaded by a particularly slimy Danny Huston, which looks to affect the land that’s already there, while bringing in tourism. But it's telling that the main conflict in the thrilling first episode of "Yellowstone" is about a cattle dispute with the neighboring Indian reservation that gets deadly, showing how certain business disputes have not changed, nor have the racial dynamics, even if they've been around for centuries. This contentious nature is articulated nicely by Gil Birmingham’s casino owner and Indian reservation community figure Thomas Rainwater, who has a fascinating background of learning later in life about how to use his identity as a Native American, having thought growing up that he was Mexican. Birmingham provides more than a worthy foe for Costner’s Dutton, and there’s a very precise smirk he gives in episode two, once the odds are in his favor, that indicates he could be one of the most unforgettable characters from the show.
Collaborating again with "Wind River" cinematographer Ben Richardson, director Sheridan captures that rich sense of place that’s helped made his original scripts stand out. And like his previous directorial film project “Wind River,” there are plenty of swooping wide shots of the land, showing the natural beauty and humbling enormity of the setting that inspires him. Best of all, even if it seems overcrowded, “Yellowstone” offers a deep texture for its different levels of wealth, from the malnourished Indian reservation homes to the old money leather couches in the Dutton ranch house, or with the whiskey the Duttons always seem to have in hand. “Yellowstone” is sprawling in the most fascinating way, which makes its sudden bursts of violence all the more immediate and uncomfortable.
Sheridan is a hell of a storyteller when it comes to creating (most) characters, and it leads to great performances, and abrasive scenarios of life and death. Numerous people here are especially compelling because Sheridan defines them most of all by their philosophies and their perspective, not just by what they want. They often speak platitudes in casual conversation, and you almost want to write them down. A further testament to Sheridan's skill, it would all seem so overwritten if the characters weren't so effectively grounded.
But as the longest project of Sheridan’s career, it does raise a question of whether his narrative interests are improved by being super-sized. At least from what I’ve seen so far, Sheridan plants many seeds but doesn’t nurture them all before moving onto something else, and it makes for a distracting, erratic story. He knows how to pile drama on in style, with a surprising death or a betrayal; tightness is nonetheless a key factor that could have made the many qualities of “Yellowstone” resonate even more. For now, the series feels as expansive, and unruly, as its namesake. But I'm nonetheless eager to find out where these characters are all going next.
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