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Review: In Defense Of Yellowstone

Yellowstone may not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. Better than that even. It has a chance to be great.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Paramount’s Yellowstone was set up to be the calling card of their new network. They had a genuine movie star in Kevin Costner to play the lead role of a Wyoming rancher caught between the forces of progress and the old ways of his Native American neighbors.

The pedigree on Yellowstone is further burnished by its creator, Taylor Sheridan. Hot off a three-film winning streak as the writer of Sicario and Hell or Highwater (for which he received an Oscar nomination), as well as last year’s Wind River, which also served as his directorial debut, Sheridan was given the keys to the whole shop and allowed to do whatever he wanted.

It all seemed so teed up. Then the reviews came in. They were not kind. “A big sprawling mess”, said one critic. And that was one of the milder responses. Dull, boring, and soapy would all dominate the Yellowstone word cloud from critics.

To say the least, this was plenty disappointing to read. As a fan of Sheridan and just about anything with Costner in a cowboy hat (including Wyatt Earp – I can go deep on that one, don’t get me started), I had high hopes. So, the show’s 90-minute pilot sat there on my DVR for nearly a week before I found the stones to press play. My expectations suitably lowered, I waded in to find out what’s the matter with Yellowstone.

Here’s what I discovered.

They are all wrong. Every last malcontented crank who threw dirt on the show. If you read one of these reviews and decided against watching Yellowstone, I’m here to tell ya, you’ve been hoodwinked. Led astray. Run amok.

Yellowstone may not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn good. Better than that even. It has a chance to be great.

Yes, I could see someone finding its pace to be on the slower side. There are moments when the dialogue might strain for poetry when prose would do better, but these are minor quibbles in what is an otherwise terrific viewing experience.

Costner is every bit as perfectly suited as you might expect to the role of the patriarch battling the ever so malevolent Danny Huston’s developer looking to encroach on his land, while also dealing with Gil Birmingham’s tribal leader who believes (not without merit) that the land should be his in the first place.

The Yellowstone Ranch is between two worlds and can find no way to belong to either. This is the source of the conflict. At the climax of the pilot, violence breaks out. A family member dies. Revenge is taken immediately, and as you might guess, it all gets very complicated.

Many of the reviews I read said the show is overly familiar. That seems to be a stretch. Sure, the man of the earth taking on a builder of concrete and steel is hardly unfamiliar, but the Native American angle adds a dimension you seldom see. The tribe is neither full of saints or sinners. But complicated people who have a reason for their beef.

The same could be said of Costner’s ranch family. Both sets are trying to hold on to a way of life, while holding back the inevitable. Which is where Danny Huston comes in. In a different world, the two factions might marry their sides and take up against the developer together. Instead, the sins of the past get in the way of if not a better future, at least an extended present. Something you can imagine both sides agreeing upon wanting were they only able to get out of their own way.

Wes Bentley as Costner’s citified son trying to keep the shit to shoe level is fine. Luke Grimes as his second son, a former soldier married to a woman from the tribe at the crux of the conflict is better. But it’s Kelly Reilly as the savage-tongued daughter who steals every scene. At times she almost seems like she got lost on the way to the set of another project where she’s all set to play a full-on femme fatale and decided to drop in on this modern day western to spice things up.

Which she does. In spades.

Her brutal verbal takedown of a beefy ranch hand, played by an all but unrecognizable Cole Hauser, post-tryst, is one for the ages. She’s worth the price of admission all by herself.

Look, after last night I’m only two episodes in with six more to go. It’s entirely possible that the whole enterprise goes completely awry down the stretch. But speaking on what I’ve seen so far, what you may have heard is more than just a little off. Yellowstone isn’t simply better than what’s been written about it, it’s outstanding. And before I forget to say, ravishing to look at.

Right now, I may be an army of one where that opinion is concerned, but I’m ready to die on that flat, dusty land under that big sky country. All alone, if necessary. I just shouldn’t have to.