Combustible Celluloid
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With: Isaiah Mustafa, Gabriel Byrne, Thomas Jane, Richard Dreyfuss, Nat Wolff, Anna Camp, Aimee Garcia, Zach McGowan, Scottie Thompson, Emma Kenney, Tanaya Beatty, John Ales, Lew Temple, Lia Marie Johnson, Isabella Ruby
Written by: Eric Belgau
Directed by: Richard Gray
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 127
Date: 06/24/2022

Murder at Yellowstone City (2022)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gold War

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Lengthy and smacking of budgetary restrictions, this Western nevertheless moves at an unhurried pace, balancing its ideology and cultural connotations with vivid storytelling and strong characters.

It's 1881 in Montana, and freed slave Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa) enters Yellowstone City, finding a fellow Shakespeare fan in bartender Edgar Blake (Richard Dreyfuss). Soon after, Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan) uncovers a huge gold vein. He rides into town, buying rounds of drinks, promising jobs for everyone, and sleeping with his favorite prostitute, Isabel (Aimee Garcia).

Before long, Dunnigan is found murdered, and Sheriff Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne) arrests Cicero as the most likely killer. Violet (Tanaya Beatty), who runs the livery stable, comes to the sheriff with possible proof that Cicero is innocent, and that night, Violet is murdered. Preacher's wife Alice (Anna Camp) goes to visit Cicero in jail, and forms her own plan to prove his innocence. But it will require her husband, Preacher Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane) to dig into his own dark past.

It's rather impressive how well Murder at Yellowstone City overcomes its limitations with clever casting and thoughtful themes. At the center is Cicero's Blackness, which immediately singles him out as the murder suspect, even without proof. It's presented as grimly inevitable, and the situation is enhanced by Cicero's love of Shakespearian tragedy (his name comes from Julius Caesar). Then there's the movie's dark view of faith, as Sunday church is interrupted with the news of the gold, the parishioners exiting their pews to see the treasure.

The preacher is forced to betray his position to help solve the mystery. Similarly, the movie offers caustic views of both Latin and Native American characters, both strong women who become victims. But there's a loving (if closeted) LGBTQ+ couple, and the preacher's wife is far from the passive character that role usually implies; she comes up with the most useful clues.

All in all, like the best Westerns do, Murder at Yellowstone City uses its surroundings (shot in Montana) as a cross-section to explore the pros and cons of American society, ranging from prejudice to teamwork. The solid cast and the confident way that writer Eric Belgau and director Richard Gray unfold the story keep everything in context, allowing viewers to enjoy the visceral Western stuff, while digesting the deeper themes.

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