Movie Review: A Big Sky Western Mystery — “Murder at Yellowstone City”

For Western fans who aren’t all that particular about how they get to The Big Shootout, and aren’t that concerned about how pokey the picture is that gets them there, we give you “Murder at Yellowstone City,” a murder mystery set in frontier Big Sky Country.

That Big Shootout? It’s a doozy, with the good guys and gals muttering questions about how good each is with a firearm.

“Good as I needed to be. And you?”

“Better’n I ought to have been.”

That last line kind of fits the movie, which is basically a primo Western filming location in search of a movie. They rounded up a decent cast, an Aussie director who’s made a few films (that recent “Robert the Bruce” outing) and a middling script and had a go.

The results aren’t great. The picture’s predictable except when it’s at its most illogical, and the pacing is slow-footed when it needed to canter. But hell, you throw Thomas Jane, Gabriel Byrne, Scottie Thompson, Anna Camp and Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss against a saloon wall, you’re going to hit something.

Hanging your plot on Old Spice spokesman/spokesmodel Isaiah Mustafa isn’t the worst gamble ever, either.

There’s a decent backlit shot or two, tidy newly-built recreations of an Old West town, and Mel Elias managed a proper Western score, with lots of diegetic — on set, played live fiddle, piano and guitar tunes. The basics are here, even if they’re not in the most thrilling package.

Mustafa rides in as the stranger in town, a guy who might’ve thought twice about changing directions when he heard the explosion. A miner in the foothills has just struck gold.

But the stranger finds a fellow Shakespeare buff (Dreyfuss) behind the bar in the Miners Saloon, and a pleasant tune from the barkeep’s life partner (John Ales of TV’s “True Story” and “Euphoria”).

“I’d give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety!”

The sheriff (Byrne) seems like a stand-up guy, a widower with a motherless son (Nat Wolff, last seen in TV’s “The Stand”). And that sheriff even makes sure church is full on Sundays, which suits the preacher (Jane) and his helpmate/wife (Camp of “Pitch Perfect”).

But then the celebrating miner is murdered, “the stranger” is rousted and arrested and the bloodletting has only begun as everybody — from the madam in the brothel (Aimee Garcia) to the Native woman who runs the stables (Tanaya Beatty) — will have to take sides.

The bit players aren’t remotely on the charismatic and believable level of the leads. Some of the dialogue is just clunky and other bits — every word out of the ex-slave Cicero’s mouth — are eye-rollingly florid.

“What man can know the morrow?”

The “mystery” is one of those that an old hand at the genre will figure out in the first act.

While every Old West town was “New” at some point, the new construction and cleanliness of the bar/brothel and the spotless wardrobes make one wonder if a dry cleaner wasn’t the first business to open here. Nothing looks lived-in or worn.

The scenery is striking, but the digital photography has more of a travelogue tint than anything leathery, dusty or decorated with sagebrush. None of which would call attention to itself had this 90 minute Western murder mystery not slogged along for 2:07.

The producers and screenwriter Eric Belgau had a few novel ideas — gays and African American drifters in the Old West, for starters. But “Murder in Yellowstone City” stumbles most badly in the editing or lack of it, a location-in-search-of-a-Western trapped by the needs to justify dead weight scenes that get fair value out of every big name they needed to cast to get this financed. And once financed, they neglected one last rewrite of the script, because the one they filmed leaves too much of the action in the hands of lesser talents.

Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex

Cast: Thomas Jane, Gabriel Byrne, Isaiah Mustafa, Alice Camp, Aimee Garcia, Tanaya Beatty, Nat Wolff and Richard Dreyfuss.

Credits: Directed by Richard Gray, scripted by Eric Belgau. An RLJE release.

Running time: 2:07

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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