A talented cast elevates this entertaining western
If you’re looking for a western with a murder mystery at its core, you might be interested in this one. Set in a once-thriving gold rush town in Montana during the days of the Wild West, Murder At Yellowstone City features several murders with an unidentified killer at the centre of its sordid tale. But whodunit?
The culprit is definitely not Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa), a former slave who ends up in Yellowstone City looking for a way to leave his past behind him.
But when local gold prospector Robert Dunnigan is murdered, shortly after discovering the location of a gold mine, this new stranger in town soon becomes the number one suspect. He is arrested by Sheriff Jim Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne) and is locked up for the crime but as you can probably expect, further killings take place while he awaits punishment for his alleged misdeeds.
It could be assumed that greed is the motive for the murders as any one of the townsfolk could have their eyes on Dunnigan’s claim to the gold. But as the mystery deepens, another motive is revealed, and some of the local townsfolk, including stable hand Violet Running Horse (Tanaya Beatty), clergyman Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane), and saloon owner Edgar Blake (Richard Dreyfuss) become key players in the dark but not very complicated plot.
Unfortunately, the identity of Dunnigan’s killer is revealed around the mid-point of the movie so if you’re expecting an Agatha Christie-type tale where the murderer is unmasked during the end game, you’re going to be a little disappointed. You might also be disappointed if you want a puzzle box of a movie as it’s director (Richard Gray) and writer (Eric Balgua) spoil the mystery with a couple of overly-obvious clues.
Still, this doesn’t mean the movie is a waste of time. Thanks to an accomplished cast, which also includes Nat Wolff (Paper Towns) and Aimee Garcia (Lucifer), you are unlikely to be bored when watching this enjoyable tale. The actors do much to elevate Murder At Yellowstone City with their excellent performances, so this becomes far more than the western B-movie that it might otherwise have been with less talented performers.
The town of Yellowstone City certainly looks the part, with its saloon, whorehouse, and ramshackle properties, and it’s as much a character as any one of the secretive townsfolk that resides within it. It’s because of the town’s aesthetics and the strong acting that the movie often feels quite believable. Less realistic are the special effects at the beginning of the movie when an explosive reveals the location of the gold but it’s easy to forget this when the plotting takes hold and the central mystery begins.
The movie’s shootouts are another positive as they are convincingly staged and exciting to watch. There are several horseback chases in the movie too and these are also quite thrilling. So, if you’re looking for some good old-fashioned western action in the mould of the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies of old, you will likely appreciate what the director has pulled off here.
There are flaws in the script, however. Aside from the core mystery which is unravelled a little too quickly, there are other moments that are a little confusing. For example, there is a scene later in the movie when Cicero escapes from his prison cell but we don’t know how he does it. We don’t know much about the inadequacies of the guard who was meant to be on duty either and there isn’t a lot of explanation when this deputy is told off for failing in his job.
I suspect editing might be the issue as scenes may have been cut to shorten the movie but then again, it might just be bad storytelling. This is a shame because Belgau’s screenplay is generally quite intelligent, with some interesting dialogue and characters that aren’t written as stereotypes.
If you can overlook the movie’s few flaws, I do think this is a movie worth watching. My expectations were low going in, mainly because I thought it was a cheap western that had been stuffed with a few big-name players to draw in a bigger audience. Thomas Jane and Richard Dreyfuss are both actors who have slummed it in low-budget movies during recent years, which is partly why I thought this was yet another movie they had taken on strictly for the pay cheque.
Thankfully, I was proven wrong. While Murder At Yellowstone City is no classic of the genre, it’s still a damn sight better than many of the straight-to-streaming cowboy movies that have sullied the genre in recent times so you shouldn’t confuse it with them.
Reviews for this one aren’t overly kind at certain places online but it might be that some critics set their expectations way too high because of the talented cast. If you can lower your expectations a little, you might enjoy this movie more than they did. I certainly thought it was quite good, and if any mean-spirited critic wants to meet me at high noon for a critical showdown, I will happily turn up to meet them.
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