Murder at Yellowstone City Review: A Western and Murder Mystery Mix

The first clue is the title: Murder at Yellowstone City is not a standard shooter. Rather, director Richard Gray’s well-crafted and nicely edited indie is both a solidly constructed mystery and a conventionally satisfying oater that comes highly recommended for fans of both genres who rarely get to sample such a mix. Aside from Henry Hathaway’s Five Card Stud (1968) and the sadly short-lived 2003 TV series Peacemakers, it’s hard to think of many other scenarios that suggest what might have happened if Zane Gray and Agatha Christie would have resisted bar and exchanged ideas.

It’s only gradually becoming clear that Thomas Jane’s Thaddeus Murphy is the play’s sagebrush dog, as his character – egged on by Anna Camp as Alice, his perceptive wife and partner – displays surprising pathological abilities while attempting to prove the innocence of a suspected murderer prove. Surprising, because Thaddeus is presented as an idealistic cleric tending his flock with his missionary wife in the town of the same name, and both initially do not seem cut out for solving crimes. But that’s before he exhumes a murder victim’s body to find out what kind of bullet is still inside the body. And before he confesses to Alice that in the bad old days he shot more straight than Bible verses.

It’s 1881 in the Montana Territory and Yellowstone City, a once prosperous gold rush boom town, is having a hard time. Recently it has primarily become a haven for people looking for something resembling an inclusive community because they really have nowhere else to go. Among the townsfolk: Edgar (Richard Dreyfuss) and Mickey (John Ales), aging gay bar owners unconvincingly pretending to be just good friends; Violet (Tanaya Beatty), a young Lakota Sioux woman who survived a cavalry charge on her people and now runs the local rental stable; and Isabel (Aimee Garcia), the Saloon Girls’ Mexican warden who also takes care of orphans and other needy people.

And then there’s Sheriff James Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne), a stern ex-soldier who’s not inclined to unreasonable brutality, but who, because of his fearsome reputation, is absolutely (and rightly) confident in his ability to keep the peace true. Unfortunately, this attitude immediately leads him to believe that if there’s a murder in Yellowstone City, some newcomer must be responsible simply because he’s “the only man who doesn’t know what I’m going to do to him.” The beauty of Byrne’s tightly controlled, fully engaged performance is that even when Ambrose’s determination to maintain law and order escalates to unwavering fanaticism, he’s far from becoming the film’s villain.

There’s a promise that happy days will come again when a rowdy prospector (Zach McGowan) stumbles upon a vein of gold on his nearby claim and announces his intention to share his fortune with his struggling neighbors. Unfortunately, the prospector is shot dead on the way home to his ailing wife (Scottie Thompson). And Sheriff Ambrose quickly decides that the culprit must be the only newcomer to the area: a gentleman and articulate ex-slave who calls himself Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa) because “I was raised by myself or by the wind. I go by the name I chose.” (A nice touch: when Cicero quotes Shakespeare to a delighted Edgar, the tavern keeper specifically warns him against speaking Bard in front of other people because the locals like to “ understand what is being said to them”.)

Cicero ends up behind bars after some of the prospector’s gold was suspiciously discovered in his room. But Alice doubts his guilt after serving him in prison and continues to use Thaddeus on his case after Cicero effects an unauthorized release. (And if that sounds vague, well, it should be. This is a mystery, remember?) As the stranger does his best to evade recapture, two more murders occur. Ambrose sees this as further proof that his gut feeling was right. However, Thaddeus tends to pick up a shovel and visit the graveyard.

Working from a top-notch script by Eric Belgau, Gray plays fair while dishing out clues until, about two-thirds of the way through, he lets us know who’s responsible for the bloody deeds. Better yet, he and Belgau are doing a good job of putting the sting back into screen death by taking time to inspire sympathy for two people who meet violent endings in scenes that are all the more shocking because of their murders seem so damn unfair.

The various shootouts and action scenes that are spread over the last third of “Murder at Yellowstone City” are exciting and, above all, believably staged. (You don’t often see good guys show the presence of mind to rearm the weapons of enemies they just killed.) And the filmmakers don’t see the need to explain everything to us. All we need is a quick look at Cicero’s horribly scarred back to understand what he’s already survived. At one point, Edgar and Mickey – whose loving relationship is never played for laughs except when joking with each other – reveal that they more or less adopted Violet when they found her after the massacre. It’s a strong scene, but emotions aren’t overly milked.

And we never find out what Thaddeus did, saw and learned in his previous life to make him so good with firearms and ballistics, and why he “came to God because I ran from the devil”. Alice just accepts that when it comes down to it, he can be a hero and, yes, a savior. She can do that too.

It should be noted that the couple could successfully continue their crime-solving in a TV series sequel or spin-off. After all, faith and forensics can move mountains. Murder at Yellowstone City Review: A Western and Murder Mystery Mix

Charles Jones

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