If I get across nothing else in this review, make sure you understand this point: Everyone in Montana does not have a Southern accent. That Yellowstone would rather its rootin’ tootin’ ranchers drawl with the best of ’em is symbolic of its rural exoticism and co-creator, director, and writer Taylor Sheridan’s (Wind River, Hell or High Water, Sicario) need to philosophize through dusty denim.
This misfire of a family drama boasts a huge ensemble, including rich rancher John Dutton (Kevin Costner) and his brooding brood (whose names are less helpful than designations like Lawyer Son and Cowboy Son), a nameless tribal nation led by Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), land developers, ranch hands, livestock officers, cops, and elected officials. They’re all against each other somehow and there’s a lot of money and power at stake. It’s no wonder the pilot episode—one of three I screened in advance of this review—is a grueling hour and a half.
The standouts in the cast are mostly those who can handle the overwritten characters Sheridan throws at them. The growling Costner, for instance, is great at the backhanded compliment and the cutting aside. He convinces us Lawyer Son (Wes Bentley) is a disappointment while dispensing nothing but praise. Birmingham does well, too, maneuvering through GIF-ready lines like, “There’s no such thing as a good man. All men are bad,” with such offhanded acceptance that you believe his well-intentioned character is self-assured (and even a bit ironic) in his nihilist worldview.
More often, though, the actors drown in the dialogue. Dutton’s daughter (Kelly Reilly) is a too-badass mouthpiece for pseudo-Sorkin takedowns, a corporate killer with nothing behind the words. Cowboy Son (Luke Grimes) and Lawyer Son are also one-note characters, despite being positioned to have complicated personal lives. Classic rich kid daddy issues aren’t more interesting simply because they’re on horseback. The best characters are those with little dialogue, because when they finally shut up we can appreciate Sheridan’s direction.
Sheridan puts some fun flourishes into the show: Horses feel dangerous and huge (like they are), there are some gripping shots of a bison drive, and the on-location countryside looks incredible. Few directors use a truck like Sheridan. No Fast and Furious car chases here, no implicit Spielberg Americana. Sheridan takes them out of the action movie or the Truck Month commercial and makes them the oft-obsolete symbols of practical masculinity that make them so perfect for this world of macho cowboys and those moving on from them. They’re the modern posse, carrying dangerous implications in their long beds.
Much of this searching for manliness carries across into the images Sheridan shoots of his actors. Branding, scarring, muscles, beards, and hair length are extremely important to all the characters. Physical marks on tough cowboy bodies are the only things that matter. Authenticity beats all else in this world. Which is why Yellowstone’s outrageous plot feels like such an undermining juxtaposition.
If these cowboys respect hard work, loyalty, and driving a doggone Ford, why are there so many overtly silly things? There are hilarious amounts of death and destruction. Imagine all the big twists of Breaking Bad jammed into about three episodes. A few people die over some cows, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds considering everyone carries a rifle and a handgun everywhere but the ice cream parlor. But there’s so much more. Things are constantly blowing up, at one point revealing a dinosaur skeleton (no, really!) so perfectly preserved as to give Alan Grant heart palpitations, at another diverting a river off of someone’s land, and at yet another, toasting a guy so badly that one of Dutton’s sons has to shoot him.
And yes, the pilot is mostly about land development. “This isn’t California, gentlemen. This is Montana. We can do whatever we want,” one developer declares after breaking the dim light of a PowerPoint by drawing the blinds: Look at all this profitable potential that has been relatively untouched by Hollywood. Sheridan pulls out all the stops to make a very weird drama that drills into rurality like a thirsty oil speculator, except it’s a heightened, ultra-rural world where people go watch wolves kill a moose on a date (again, really), like it’s some camo-clad version of the off-the-rails 9-1-1.
At one point, the extensive male cadre of the Dutton family goes horseback fly fishing, where Sheridan combines all sorts of elements that make a shoot tough (animals, water, kids), while having them all hold crisscrossing lines and rods. It’s not a very exciting scene, but there’s a whole lot going on. Now, if they’d all started shooting each other and then dropped some heavy-handed soliloquy at the end about how “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do out in these uncivilized parts of the world,” you wouldn’t have to watch the rest of this mess.
Yellowstone premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Paramount Network.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.