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Outer Range Challenges Expectations While it Entertains

“Outer Range,” a sci-fi Western and family soap from creator Brian Watkins, concerns two voids. The physical void is a smoke-filled hole in Wyoming located on disputed land that leads to a bottomless chasm. The spiritual void—felt by the severe and brooding patriarch Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin), the kind of silent Western man whose heart suffers from a unique drought—isn’t as simple to locate. Royal is a rancher. A man of the earth. But the land is beginning to betray him, and judgment day is nigh.  

Despite his silence, Royal becomes one of television’s most relatable characters. Like any human, he feels that haunting terror, the kind that creeps in the night like an idiot in plain sight, the kind your brain lets in when your imagination opens the door. You feel it most after a tragedy. Does God exist? And if he does, why does he let bad things happen? Royal hasn’t felt God for some time, which makes the oppressively silent nights all the more difficult. His daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Perry (Tom Pelphrey), disappeared without a trace a few months ago. The loss has affected everyone; his young granddaughter Amy (Olive Abercrombie) aloofly ventures around the house. His other son, Rhett (Lewis Pullman), a champion bull rider, can’t seem to get back in the groove. Perry is shattered, and moves as quietly as Royal. To cope, Cecilia (Lili Taylor), the family matriarch and Royal’s wife, has thrown herself into church.  

Each feels abandoned by God, and sometimes, abandoned by each other.

“Outer Range” is one of those series in which you can’t pinpoint its origin, but it strikes a nerve. Maybe because it’s so familiar yet so alien? That sense comes on strong when the cheery backpacker Autumn (Imogen Poots) happens, or so we believe, upon the Abbott’s ranch. She asks to camp on their land for just a few days without offering many details about herself, except that she mysteriously has a wealth of money. Even so, for the time being, her importance pales in comparison to the cattle baron family, the Tillersons. Their infirmed father Wayne (Will Patton) living with an unknown ailment, is suing Royal over land he claims is his. And his young sons—Luke (Shaun Sipos), Billy (Noah Reid), and Trevor (Matt Lauria)—are all too happy to lord their family’s influence over the local authorities, including Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski), an Indigenous lesbian running for sheriff. Initially, Royal can’t figure out why Wayne suddenly wants the land. It’s been in Cecilia’s family for over a century. But when a bizarre void appears in the disputed territory it strikes the kind of fear in Royal that arises when mortality taps you on the shoulder.   

One of the great pleasures of “Outer Range” derives from the known yet unknown, or the comprehension of incomprehensible questions. For instance, in the premiere, after Perry beats Trevor to death, Royal disposes of Trevor’s body by dumping him into the hole. Where Trevor went baffles us and the authorities, and further drives a wedge between the Abbotts and Tillersons. In episode two, “The Land,” Royal is pushed down the bottomless chasm, arriving in the future, in a scene recalling “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” He awakens to a dark field surrounded by hostile townsfolk he once called his friends. “Outer Range” reveals these visions without giving away the roadmap, and part of the fun is deconstructing how fate and prophecy intertwine as the clues add up to genuine narrative shocks. 

This is a series with a fascinating premise. It’s a mix of “Yellowstone,” the “X-Files,” and “Dynasty” (I swear, it’ll make sense once you watch). But the mix and match of peculiar characters is even more enriching. Noah Reid's singing Billy often breaks out into full-throated renditions of “Save the Best for Last” and “Angel of Morning,” stealing every scene, melting the show's icy exterior. As Cecilia, often siloed from the main plot, Lili Taylor does essential and gripping work as a woman holding onto faith while her whole world falls apart. Taylor never makes the easy choice; instead, she zigs and zags lower to discover a quiet performance that’s always felt, always bruising, even when the script provides her character less of a sounding board.  

“Outer Range” overflows with similar tonal shifts, which are smoothly guided by each actor crafting a deep inner life to their respective character. A transcendent Imogen Poots, as the eccentric Autumn, works through unimaginable stratas, traversing much of the series as an enigma separate from time and place. Poots fills in the intended gaps, swirling toward bigger and broader strokes. Likewise Josh Brolin plays a figure not unlike his turn in “No Country for Old Men.” Royal is a determined man similarly undeterred by long odds. And like Poots, his maneuvers hinge on him allowing just enough to bob to the surface without giving away his performance. Brolin has rarely been better. 

Each episode, with a few directed by Amy Seimetz (“She Dies Tomorrow”),  whizzes past as odd happenings begin to pile up: a bison with arrows lodged in its side appears (one of the show’s few drawbacks are badly VFX animals); Cecilia might have spotted Perry’s missing wife; Wayne comes in possession of a strange rock; a mountain briefly vanishes. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ eerie score sets the tone and mood, while the cinematography—opting for low angled, centered framing—permits ethereal light to flood reverent compositions and boundless shadows to encase the show’s most chaotic scenes. The chasm scenes, as characters fall slowly through the black void, recall Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad.” The desolate landscape of the West has never felt more isolated, never more inviting of the abnormal than here. 

It’s impossible to touch on every nook and cranny of “Outer Range” without spoiling its surprises. Just know that every corner holds a secret, that every metaphysical query leads toward a more puzzling mystery. And yet, the emotional weight of the show never gets bogged down by reveals. "Outer Range" mines loyalty and ambition, truth and superstition, love, existentialism, tradition, and destiny for intense and dizzying blow-ups. After eight episodes, you get the sense this could easily be a multi-season series with plenty of space to expand this world beyond Wyoming. Even if it remains a mini-series, however, you wouldn’t feel cheated either. “Outer Range” is the rare kind of genre-bending work that leaves one wounded in its fresh take on our human existence while offering untold possibilities.    

Whole season screened for review.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is a freelance film critic based in Chicago with a MA in English. He’s the founder of 812filmreviews, and he’s written for ThePlaylist, Consequence of Sound, and Mediaversity.

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