The mysterious stranger, the weathered lawman, the preacher with a past: each of these tropes has been used countless times to tell tales of war, revenge, and redemption. They’re tropes due to their frequency, implying a laziness in creativity, but, when used properly, each can be a jumping off point for stories like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Birds of Prey (2020), and Serenity (2005). In westerns, these tropes have appeared within some of the greats like The Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993), and No Country for Old Men (2007). The latest release to incorporate these tropes with mixed results is director Richard Gray’s (Robert the Bruce) Murder at Yellowstone City, a star-studded western thriller that hits the target about as often as it misses.
On the same day that Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa) rides into Yellowstone City, Montana, local resident Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan) strikes it rich by finding gold on his claim. Soon after celebrating with the few townspeople who remain in their rundown town, Dunnigan finds himself on the wrong end of a bullet and Cicero is immediately blamed. Sheriff Jim Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne) is more than certain they’ve got their man, while others aren’t so sure. In the search for the truth, Ambrose, Father Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane), and the remaining Yellowstone City residents will have to decide if justice has to take a backseat to coincidence.
By all rights, Murder at Yellowstone City should be a slam-dunk. Cinematographer John Garrett worked on films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) and Avengers: Endgame (2019) as a camera operator, production designer Tessla Hastings worked on films like The Ballad of Lefty Brown (set decorator; 2017) and Buster’s Mal Heart (art director; 2016), and costume designer Vicki Hales worked on projects like Primeval (2009) and Attack the Block (2011). With the technical experience in these three individuals, the look of the action, the style of the setting, and the appearance of the cast pulls the audience into this isolated and now former-boomtown with a sense of authenticity. Visually, Garrett captures a sense of potential about Yellowstone City by not muting the natural colors of nature or beast, so that even when things are dark or dangerous, there’s always a sense of progress or possibility. Same with the production design and costuming, which convey a sense that the town has been long without a financial support system but is not so far gone as to have lost total hope. The buildings are well kept, as are the people, they don’t seem starved for food or drink, and they don’t seem to want for much, even if there are many without work. This makes the murder seem all the more egregious as Dunnigan promised to hire everyone to mine his claim, a way to gain his fortune while uplifting his fellows. With his death, so immediately seems to go the opportunity for a township resurrection. Once you add in the cast, each of which brings a form of depth to their characters, Yellowstone City seems built to become the next great western.
So why doesn’t it?
Strangely, it comes down to Eric Belgau’s script. This is Belgau’s second time working with Gray, their first being Robert the Bruce (2019), and the script is both the story’s strength and weakness. Playing to the strengths, Yellowstone City is a fairly standard meat-and-potatoes western. It’s got the bulk of the tropes and a cast that can pull out some depths from them to make the aforementioned mysterious stranger, weathered lawman, and preacher with a past believable in their conflict. What impresses most about the script is how Belgau utilizes the period to incorporate subtext and (mostly) keep it there. Take the fact that Cicero comes to Yellowstone City in 1881: that’s approximately 18 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and roughly 16 after the last slaves in the Union learned of their freedom. Before we learn a single thing about the character, given the period, his dress, and the way he speaks, the audience already knows that, for the period, Cicero is a man apart, making him an easy target for any civil unrest. That the first person he speaks with is the girl running the local stable, Violet Running Horse (Tanaya Beatty), someone who understands what he means by “finding friends,” plays into the understanding that she, like he, is an outsider in Yellowstone City by nature of her race. Credit to Belgau as well for the way the film explores the dark side of American Exceptionalism without losing sight of the characters as people. These details not only make Cicero and Violet compelling characters who the audience can root for, but helps establish that the town of Yellowstone City has its own understanding of what justice is when you’re not part of the citizenry. Where things lose their way, though, is the means of maintaining tension.
At the center of the narrative is a mystery that threatens to tear the town apart as some question Cicero’s guilt and some presume it immediately. Though it’s great that the script doesn’t have Father Thaddeus immediately believe in Cicero’s innocence, the journey to get there takes long enough for questionable holes to appear in the execution of specific key moments. On the one hand, there’s a great escape sequence that’s cleverly designed to get Cicero in even more trouble, but, after, it’s hard not to question how Nat Wolff’s Jimmy Ambrose Jr. so quickly caught up to him and, upon getting injured, why Cicero went to Father Thaddeus for help when that required doubling back. Narrative choices like these plague other characters who seem like they would be against Cicero based on conversation suggesting the birth of a vendetta, but then turn to his side without any access to information implying his innocence. Similarly, the way the bodies fall in the climax makes any kind of victory pyrrhic, which is impressive as an endeavor, but doesn’t track with the uplifting music and feel of the end of the film. When all comes to light, nothing feels stretched or unrealistic, but there is a sense that some aspects come from a place of “how we get person A to place B” versus a natural reaction to circumstance.
If you’re in the mood for a new western, Murder at Yellowstone City will certainly scratch the itch. Even though accommodating the large cast hampers the rhythm and momentum of the narrative, they make the most of their moments, so the film is at least engaging in that regard. However, there’s little new offered that makes the case for creative use of the tried and true tropes.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital June 24th, 2022.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.