Review: Go West and enjoy 'Murder at Yellowstone City'

Posted August 23,2022 - 11:43 AM

There was a time in Hollywood when you couldn't spit without hitting a spittoon on some Old West set. Westerns were as ubiquitous with movies back then as comic book films are today.

They were everywhere and we couldn't get enough.

Times change and, with it, our appetites for entertainment change as well. While you could argue that some of the Marvel films are simply Westerns set in space, you really have to squint hard to see the resemblance.

And yet, there is something about the Western film that genuinely resonates with an American audience. I'm unsure if it's connected to our shared past or the unrestrained optimism for a better life, but people genuinely enjoy a well-made Western film.

Enter Murder at Yellowstone City.

The once peaceful and booming Yellowstone City has fallen on hard times, but when a local prospector strikes gold, things seem to be turning around. Any hope is soon shattered when the prospector is found dead and the Sheriff quickly arrests a mysterious newcomer. But nothing is so simple in this sleepy western town, and more than a few of the locals have secrets to keep and reasons to kill. As the brutal murders continue, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Yellowstone City goes down a bloody path to a final showdown that not all will survive.

While technically an indie film, Murder at Yellowstone City is so well-made that you won't be able to tell the difference between it and its Hollywood brethren. The filmmakers created Yellowstone City from scratch and didn't simply settle for the old facades that were the tell-tale sign of a Western in the 1950s. No, they created real, functional buildings that allowed them to stage some pretty badass shootouts in the last third of the film.

One of my favorite parts of Murder at Yellowstone City is the duality it presents between our stereotypical idea of what a Wild West town would look like and the reality of a diverse mix of people co-mingling. This isn't a John Ford Western where the bad guys wear black and the good guys wear white before prevailing over their nasty cohorts.

No, Murder at Yellowstone City paints its canvass in various shades of gray where nothing is as it seems and the motives driving the characters aren't so simple. In fact, the film relies heavily on audience expectations and plays with them to create a novel murder mystery that is not only entertaining but also believable.

Everything from a closeted gay couple who owns the local saloon to a Preacher with a nefarious past, it's clear that this isn't simply another John Wayne tale. No, this film touches on the diverse humanity that likely would have truly been found in this part of the country in the late 1800s.

Much like the world today, the characters are a melting pot of the times, and not getting trapped in a Caucasian fever dream is one of the movie's highest merits. Starting with Isaiah Mustafa as a freed slave looking for a fresh start with similarly-minded folks to Richard Dreyfuss as the gay bartender who keeps up appearances with a painting of a half-naked woman over his bar, it's clear that this isn't your ordinary Western.

It's not even in the same zip code. And that's what truly separates Murder at Yellowstone City from other films looking to strike it rich with a Western story.

Beyond the aforementioned stars, Gabriel Byrne is perfectly cast as the Sheriff who is more interested in ruling with an iron fist than he is in finding the truth. Thomas Jane plays his main foil admirably as a Preacher with a past.

And we haven't even talked about the trio of strong performances turned in by the young women Anna Camp, Aimee Garcia and Emma Kenney. All three play well-developed characters who aren't simply there to play damsels in distress or sexual objects for their male counterparts.

No, Murder at Yellowstone City yet again breaks with Western tradition and creates powerful female characters that carry their own weight in the movie. They each have interesting and realistic backstories that provide their character direction and motivation that you just don't normally find in an indie film of this sort.

With such a great cast and an ongoing murder mystery, it's not surprising that the run time exceeds two hours. If I had one small critique, it would be the length of the movie. It's not that it drags (far from it), but I think the overall story would have been better served with a tighter edit.

And yet, even with this longer cut of the film, the filmmakers didn't feel a need to explain away every little detail. They leave many things up to the audience to fill in and it works rather well. For instance, they don't dive deep into the Preacher's past other than to establish that he wasn't always a man of God and that something sent him on his way to his ministry.

Whatever that past was, it's clear that he firmly believes in true justice and not just the Sheriff's solution of ruling with fear. While the knee-jerk reaction is to blame the new guy in town when bodies start piling up, especially when his skin tone doesn't match the vast majority of the town's residents, the Preacher and his wife (Anna Camp) feel compelled to dig deeper (quite literally).

For those of you hoping to be satiated with the violence and gore normally associated with Westerns, don't worry there's plenty of that too. From various shootouts to a primitive CSI scene to gather evidence, there is plenty of realistic action to keep everyone happy.

And yet, while Murder at Yellowstone City is violent, this violence isn't really the lasting impression that it is in other Westerns. No, there's a ray of hope for a better, less violent future in there that the filmmakers clearly want to showcase.

Whether that better future ever comes to Yellowstone City is something that you have to figure out for yourself, but again, this is what makes Murder at Yellowstone City so enjoyable. It's not a cookie-cutter Western and that's a wonderful thing to behold.

Murder at Yellowstone City is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.