Outer Range. Available now on Amazon Prime.
If you took Yellowstone and crossed it maybe with Turn of the Screw, you might come up with something like Amazon’s spooky new modern Western, Outer Range. (Or Beth Dutton might just kill you. Let me know.) Always weird, sometimes annoying, but frequently fascinating, Outer Range has Yellowstone‘s same sense of a cowboy family unaware that it has lived out its time—but in this case, the encroachment is not being done by modernity, but something antediluvian that’s returned for a possession it left behind.
Outer Range stars Josh Brolin as Royal Abbott, the head of an old Wyoming ranching family that suddenly finds itself beset with problems. The wife of one of his sons has disappeared without a trace, leaving behind her young daughter. (Almost as disturbing as the disappearance is the little girl’s seeming indifference to it.) Disturbingly, cattle are vanishing, one or two at a time; and buffalo are appearing out of nowhere—sometimes, disconcertingly, with American Indian arrows and lances lodged in their bodies. A space-cadet hippie has shown up at the ranch asking to camp there, for no comprehensible reason, and even more incomprehensibly to his family, Abbott has agreed.
The most pressing problem is that the bullying family on a neighboring ranch has put in a claim for several hundred acres that have been in Abbott’s wife’s family for 150 years. In what Abbott’s lawyer calls “a good old-fashioned topical fuck-job,” the rival Tillersons are taking advantage of a 19th-century drafting error committed when Wyoming was altering its county lines, but the Abbott attorney says fighting them will be useless and expensive: “The Tillersons don’t lose.”
Most menacing of all, while chasing a runaway steer on a remote range of his ranch—the very part of the land that the Tillersons are trying to make off with—Abbott discovers a perfectly circular and, from all appearances, bottomless, pit. What the pit is, where it came from and what—if anything—it’s doing are not apparent, but it’s instantly recognizable as a useful thing in which to toss blood-spattered clothing and lifeless corpses.
Abbott’s chronic stoicism is rattled by the family troubles, especially that inexplicable pit. Usually indifferent or even hostile to religion—when his family goes to Sunday church services, he sits in the back pews reading a newspaper—Abbott one night insists on a prayer at the supper table which turns into more of a third degree. “Maybe you can give us some hint as to what you’re up to,” Abbott demands of God, “because I don’t have the first fucking clue.”
Abbott’s sudden interest in religion cannot mask his burgeoning nihilism. When he discovers that Autumn, the hippie poet girl (Imogene Poots, I Know This Much Is True) has pitched her tent near the ominous pit, he warns her off; she blows him off. “The world plays out how it’s supposed to, so there’s nothing to worry about,” she replies blithely, but has no answer for his bleak question: “What if it’s supposed to turn out bad?”
Like that conversation, the tone of Outer Range is mostly grim. But it shifts markedly into absurdist humor when Abbott interacts with his land-grabbing neighbor, Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton, Yellowstone). The aging Tillerson has started to go around the bend—he’s introduced in a scene in which he’s chatting amiably with a mounted buffalo head—but his off-the-rails conversation sometimes seems to mask something squirrely in the reality of the remote Wyoming range country in which they live.
When Abbot asks why he won’t agree to make a deal over the land, Tillerson responds with a detailed description of the post-modernist erotic art collection he used to have (“the walls were covered in smut that would make your toes curl”) but abandoned because it never satisfied him. “What got my heart racing was what I couldn’t see, what I didn’t know about, what was hidden from me,” Tillerson notes. “What kept me looking—I was born to hunt.” The explanation is as chilling as it is cryptic.
Like Yellowstone, Outer Range is built around the relationships in a family built around a stolid American male of an earlier generation, no fascist but also no believer in healing crystals. (Brolin practically channels Yellowstone‘s Kevin Costner in his performance, which I don’t intend as a criticism.) The unnerving question of Outer Range is what happens when that stolidity is subverted.
As engrossing as Outer Range is, it would be even more so if creator-producer Brian Watkins didn’t have such a thirst for incoherence. His scripts are sometimes too laconic for their own good. And his penchant for a literal definition of film noir, bathing practically every scene in impenetrable darkness, as if Wyoming has outlawed any lightbulb stronger than 25 watts, is extraordinarily irritating. A couple of times he fixes his camera on that pit, where something is apparently going on, but you’re never going to figure out what it is unless you download the Braille version.