With an unfortunate dearth of new content these days, I give one extended review this month. It may be a while until new films make their way back to our homes or screens, but in the meantime, I will continue to find great content where I can.
I think of Yellowstone as The Godfather of the Range. The Godfather is one of the great, classic films of all time: it is not just an operatic view into a large and powerful crime family (the Corleones), it also an allegory for the American dream and the American experiment. Released in 1972, it spoke to the rising influence of corporations as well as a corrupt government in the Nixon Administration. America, and the world, was at an inflection point with multiple movements fomenting. The Godfather reflected how the power was concentrating in the hands of a few, in league with government. It was a warning.
Fast forward to today. Corporations have more power than ever, a corrupt administration works hand-in-hand with business to solidify power/influence, and we have a new culture/social war. It is into this mix that Yellowstone is born—an operatic, Shakespearean family drama that plays out among the magnificent vistas of western Montana. The Wild West on the edge of the city with a ranching family as the Corleones. It’s a volatile mix, and the drama plays out furiously.
The patriarch of the family is John Dutton, realized perfectly by the grizzled and hoarse Kevin Costner. Pun intended, because horses figure prominently in an epic where they are as prominent as black Suburbans. His brood includes the fiery Beth (Sonny), the hapless Jamie (Fredo), and the prodigal son Kayce (Michael). We even have the adopted son (a la Tom Hagan) in Rip, who serves as the Luca Brasi-enforcer. The comparisons to The Godfather are obvious.
The top-notch production stars with the writing and trickles down from there: the cinematography is gorgeous, the sound is particularly good, and the performances pop. Aside from Costner, Kelly Reilly sizzles as Beth, Wes Bentley is the perfect sap, Luke Grimes is quietly good as the ex-Navy lethal killer outcast Kayce, and Cole Hauser steals scenes as the hardened tough-guy Rip. With multiple storylines inside the episodes as well as across them, the writing and performances seamlessly allow us in.
The main through line of the series is the family’s struggle to keep their wide swath of land intact. They collide with a number of adversaries: a billionaire developer, the neighboring Native American tribe, the local gangsters, and an investment firm that wishes to build an airport and ski area. The conflicts are as bloody and deceitful as the Corleone family’s war, sans cannolis.
That brings us back to theme: a corrupt patriarch uses his wealth and position, in league with the rest of the government (the Governor is Dutton’s paramour), to enrich himself and keep his adversaries at bay. Throw in some nepotism, and it is the perfect allegory for our time; much like The Godfather, it is a cautionary tale of the American dream gone off the rails. Yellowstone speaks to our own world, its inequities, and a rigged system that laughs at us. Is the family redeemable? Or caricature? Are they representatives of the conservative, hard-working foundation of our Republic? Or are they opportunistic criminals? Check it out and decide for yourself.
You will like this show if you enjoyed Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and/or Longmire.
Now playing on Peacock and Paramount networks.
Vincent Piturro, PhD, is a Professor of Film and Media Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook and @VincentPiturro on Twitter.