By Peter Hummers on June 10, 2021
Kevin Costner loves Westerns, perhaps even more than baseball movies. He was born in California, and grew up in Compton, but at the age of seven he saw the 1962 film How the West Was Won (streaming here), and later said that that film “formed” his childhood. Today he lives on a ranch in Colorado.
He appeared in his first Western, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 Silverado (streaming here), two years before his breakout role as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (streaming), and hasn’t looked back, directing and producing several himself, including the almost-Western Hatfields & McCoys (Stream On) miniseries. This week we’ll look at one Western that he directed, and his current Paramount TV series.
The Revisionist Western is a subgenre that subverts the standard format of the Western. The traditional Western follows a standard format centered around a strong, male lead character who leads the forces of a civilized people against the uncivilized forces that stand in their way. This pitted the “good guys,” usually lawmen, against the “bad guys,” usually criminals or Native Americans.
In Open Range we have four outcasts: a free-grazer cattle drover, Boss, who, while remaining on the right side of the common law of grazing, finds himself, his crew and his roving herd of cattle on the wrong side of the court of public opinion, especially that of a landowner and his corrupt marshall. Boss’s crew comprises Charley Waite, a Civil-War veteran and ex-gunslinger haunted by a violent past; Mose, a slow-witted but hardy cowhand; and Button, a Mexican Indian teenager rescued from the streets by Boss.
Open Range begins idyllically, with Boss (Robert Duvall, The Godfather, Lonesome Dove), Charlie (Costner), Mose (Abraham Benrubi, Bosch) and Button (Diego Luna, Narcos: Mexico), moving a cattle herd across beautiful vistas to a stirring musical score. Their supply wagon runs into a ditch and they must camp while they unstick it. Mose, a good-natured bear of a man, and Button horse around with camp tasks while Boss and Charlie pull the wagon out and round up their horses.
When Mose is sent into a nearby town for supplies as they prepare to move out, he runs into trouble with the land baron’s crew, which by movie’s end culminates in a chaotic shootout in the town that’s notable for its credibility: very few of the combatants (save Charley) actually hit what they’re shooting at.
Annette Bening plays a once-in-a-lifetime shot at redemption for Charley, and Kim Coates is a gunman with talents roughly equivalent to Charley’s who is employed by the land baron. 79% critics and 84% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Imagine, if you will, Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright crossed with Tony Soprano. Set in contemporary Montana, Yellowstone is the saga of the fictional Yellowstone/Dutton ranch, the largest ranch in the country, and the dysfunctional Dutton family, headed by John Dutton (Costner), another ruthless land baron seeking to preserve his ranch and legacy for his children, all of whom have heavy baggage of their own. His antagonists are the ambitious new chairman of an adjacent Native reservation, Thomas Rainwater; a developer who wants a piece if not more of Dutton’s land; America’s first national park; and his own children.
One son, Kayce (Luke Grimes, American Sniper), has married a Native girl and lives with her and their son on the reservation; he’s a horse trainer. He feels as if he’s fallen between two stools: he’s not unwelcome on the “rez,” but at the end of the day he’s not one of them; still, he doesn’t want to live on the ranch. Dutton’s daughter Beth (Kelly Reilly) had been in Salt Lake City, handling mergers and acquisitions for a huge bank; she recently moved back to the ranch to help her father, but she’s a roaring alcoholic. Dutton’s son Jamie (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the ranch’s legal counsel; he wants to run for office, but Dutton resents the time that takes from the ranch. Dutton’s oldest son Lee (Dave Annable) is the Dutton ranch head of security and an agent of the Montana Livestock Commission.
We also spend time in the bunkhouse of the ranch, which Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser), Dutton’s ranch foreman and enforcer, runs, and meet the cowboys and see some unique recruitment techniques. Two new hands sign up in the early seasons; one is the petty criminal son of a friend of Dutton’s, who is as much a cowboy as I am—he serves as an audience proxy for the bunkhouse as he learns on the job.
The first conflict we see is triggered by a herd of Dutton’s cattle wandering onto the reservation. He notices some fencing is missing, and the tribe claims the cows as their own. When Dutton sends cattle agents including his son Lee to the res to collect them (Dutton is Montana Livestock Commissioner) a deadly firefight erupts between the agents and the reservation police.
Yellowstone is a compelling epic ensemble saga from the bunkhouse to the boardroom featuring family drama, political struggles, and hostile takeovers, against the backdrop of the magnificent vistas and big sky of Montana. In its scope it really is like The Sopranos with cowboys and Indians.
Next time, Mile-high Bob Denver: Dobie Gillis and Gilligan’s Island.
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