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Scottie Thompson

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY

(YELLOWSTONE FILM RANCH/RENEGADE ENTERTAINMENT/RLJ ENTERTAINMENT (127 minutes; Unrated); 2022)

If you’ve spent any time here at all, you probably know that I’m a sucker for Westerns – movies (RUSTLERS’ RHAPSODY being my favorite), television series (HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL does it for me), comic books, novels and non-fiction. Anything at all that could be deemed a “Western” is pretty much okay in my book. So, when the chance to review a new flick called MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY hit my email, I jumped on it. I was not disappointed!

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ISAIAH MUSTAFA, RICHARD DREYFUSS) (publicity still)

In the opening sequence, there are a few of the familiar “Western” tropes to set the mood and the scene for the rest of the film. There is, of course, the appearance of a stranger in town… a quiet, observant, somewhat moody stranger who quotes Shakespeare. As this stranger (played with brooding intensity by Isaiah Mustafa) approaches Yellowstone City, Montana, he is stopped dead in his tracks (well… his horse’s tracks) by an explosion. That explosion turns out to be a nightmare for the stranger: One Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan in a small but integral role, though he does appear more after his death than before) was blowing open a long-closed gold mine and, hitting the mother lode, begins making tracks to his shack in the woods. His ramshackle abode was merely a stopping off place so he could tell his wife, Emma (Scottie Thompson), that he found gold and he was heading to town.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ZACH MCGOWAN, AIMEE GARCIA, EMMA KENNEY, ISAIAH MUSTAFA) (publicity still)

In town, the preacher, Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane), rings the bell for the Sunday morning call-to-worship. Sheriff James Ambrose (Gabriel Bryne), looking for his son (Nat Wolff), finds him in the saloon (which, apparently, is also the town hotel, brothel and bathhouse). With the help of one of the working women, Isabel (Aimee Garcia), Ambrose rousts Jimmy from a hand of poker and into the church. Shortly after, the stranger rides into town, eyed by every person not inside the house of worship. Looking for a room, he is directed to the saloon, where he recites Shakespeare with one of the saloon owners, Edgar (Richard Dreyfuss), who tells him to be careful because the townfolk don’t understand anything but plain and simple. Inside the church, Pastor Murphy is just beginning his sermon as Mister Dunnigan rides into town, guns blazing, yelling that he’s struck it rich. After buying almost the entire town a round and offering the men jobs at his mine, he heads upstairs for a roll with his favorite girl, Isabel. All the while, the stranger sits in a corner alone, taking everything in. When one of the men demands payment for a past gambling debt, it looks like Robert Dunnigan’s celebration may be short-lived and the stranger’s hand automatically goes to his holster. Cooler heads (and the sheriff’s gun pointed between the gambler’s eyes) prevail and the party continues. Headed home after a hard day’s drinking and carousing, someone takes a potshot at Dunnigan, shooting his horse out from under him; obviously in fear of losing his gold, Dunnigan keeps a rapid-fire string of questions, pleas and bargaining opportunities aimed at his attacker while unloading both of his pistols in the general direction of where the shots came from. Of course, all of this shouting makes it that much easier for his assailant to find him in the dark. Taking aim, the shooter hits poor Robert in the back but, just to make sure he’s done the job, he slits his throat for good measure. Now, once his body is found, the sheriff and his deputies are certain of the killer. I mean, there’s only one new man in town so… it must be him, right? And, of course, the stranger’s refusal to speak and the fact that he had money only added to Sheriff Ambrose’s belief that he had his man.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ANNA CAMP) (publicity still)

Amidst all of the death and brutality (and there is a LOT!), there are some truly sweet moments in MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY. These mostly involve Pastor Murphy’s wife, Alice (Anna Camp), a woman who takes the “ministering” aspect of Christianity to heart, holding Bible studies with the women of Yellowstone City (including the “working” women of the brothel, holding the meetings at their place of business), visiting the sick and, of course, the stranger in his cell. Another pure soul, Violet Running Horse (Tanaya Beatty), was orphaned when a band of white men burned her family’s village and killed everyone in it; Edgar and his partner, Mickey (John Ales), looking for a better life out west, found the child when they happened upon the carnage, nursed her back to health and raised her. Violet operates the livery stables and is the first person the (as yet nameless) stranger meets. After a short exchange regarding the talismans hanging from the man’s saddle and, naturally, the length of his stay in town, the care of his horse and belongings, as well as where he can get a drink and a room. As mentioned earlier, she points him in the direction of the hotel/saloon. All of this obviously takes place right after Dunnigan disrupts the quiet Sunday morning. The next night, Robert Dunnigan is dead and the stranger is arrested. Violet realizes that he could not have killed Dunnigan because his horse and saddle had not been touched since he left them in her care; unimpressed, Sheriff Ambrose thanks her for the information but tells her that there are other ways for a man to get out of town.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (ISABELLA RUBY) (publicity still)

Aside from Edgar, the next person the stranger speaks to is Alice Murphy. The preacher’s wife, after having told her husband that he may be good at sermonizing but not at ministering, was there to minister to a soul in need. Alice asks the man his name. “Cicero,” is his reply. “Cicero? Like the philosopher?” Cicero explains that it is the name of a character in a play who delivers a speech that he dreams of reciting. He also tells Alice that, as a former slave, he has no family and no family name… he raised himself. The preacher’s wife is the moral compass in Yellowstone City, gently prodding her husband to do the right thing. The same morning that she tells him that she’s going to visit the prisoner, a gunshot rings out. It’s one of Isabel’s (yes… THAT Isabel) charges, an orphan girl named Josephine (or Josie, played by newcomer Isabella Ruby) shooting at cans in the cemetery. Thaddeus says, “It’s Josephine. You know, she could use a little ministering, too.” With a smile and a laugh, Alice tells him “What she could use is a father or… someone like that she could look up to.” Getting the point, the good parson heads out to the graveyard:

“You shouldn’t be shootin’ at graves.”

Ain’t like I’m hittin’ it.”

“You’re tryin’ too hard… you’re waiting for the gunfire. It’s not about the violence.”

“It is violent. It’s a rifle.”

As the preacher tells her to relax and helps her adjust how she’s holding, aiming and firing the weapon, Josie asks, “What do you know about guns?” A question that will be answered later in the film. As she takes aim once more, she actually hits the headstone where she placed her target. “Ain’t there somewhere better around here we can shoot?”

“That man killed my father.”

“Go ahead then.” The next shot hits the can. “Let’s set ‘em up.” It’s one of the sweet moments that make MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY more than your typical Western or “who done it” murder mysteries. The young Miss Ruby has several career-making scenes and Josephine proves to be much more than the Bible quoting young lady we first meet. During the forty minute shootout that ends the story proper, she is wounded and does quite a bit of damage herself.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (JOHN ALES, DANNY BOHNEN, GABRIEL BYRNE, LEW TEMPLE, NAT WOLFF) (publicity still)

Throughout the film, the body count continues to rise… and unfortunately, for the prisoner, the night of the second murder (more throat slitting), the deputy in charge of watching over him is otherwise occupied with one of the ladies from the saloon and, thus occupied, doesn’t hear someone come in and unlock the cell door, allowing the prisoner to “escape.” Of course, sensing that he was being railroaded and, more than likely, headed to the gallows, he took the opportunity to get out of Yellowstone.

MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY (THOMAS JANE) (publicity still)

Dunnigan continues to appear, first stinking up the church before his burial and later, after being disinterred by Murphy, as what could be considered the first case of forensic exploration ever performed; the preacher is now certain that Cicero could not have been Dunnigan’s murderer because the bullet he retrieved from the corpse was not fired from the kind of gun that the stranger uses. Things pick up considerably from that point leading to the already mentioned gunfight. As this is just as much a murder mystery as it is a straight Western, I don’t want to give too much away so… just let me say that MURDER AT YELLOWSTONE CITY reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movies – Western or otherwise – 1968’s FIVE CARD STUD starring Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum and Roddy McDowell. I wholeheartedly recommend this dark, engaging film. A star-filled cast doesn’t hurt its chances of reaching a wider audience than most recent Westerns have enjoyed and a strong script by Eric Belgau and deft genre-wise direction by Richard Gray makes it one of the best films of the year.

LIMBO

(UNCORK’D ENTERTAINMENT/ALTERNATE ENDING FILMS/LIMBO ENTERTAINMENT (89 minutes; Unrated); 2020)


Whenever I’m assigned a review for a low-budget indie type film, usually something I’ve never heard of before, I have a tendency to mentally prepare myself for an experience that’ll be tedious and hard to write about, as has been the case more than a few times. It’s just that there are only so many ways to make a film genuinely entertaining and interesting; the “surprise factor” is a rarity in below-the-radar films. Imagine my pleasant reaction, then, when LIMBO turned up, on a particularly bad day for me when I was mostly making myself kill time, and lo and behold it grabbed me right away and didn’t let go. There have been other films that combined the legal profession and the underlying theme of good versus evil – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE comes to mind – but there is enough clever, offbeat stuff in LIMBO to make it a worthy viewing experience. A timeless theme that has occurred throughout the history of films is given some curious new life here thanks to writer/director Mark H Young’s clear interest in the whole “heaven or hell” debate. And yes, I was surprised.

LIMBO (Veronica Cartwright) (publicity still)

A bad brute of a guy, Jimmy Boyle (Lew Temple) commits a senseless murder of a mother of three (Veronica Cartwright in a brief but memorable appearance), and must face justice. It’s giving nothing away to say that he dies himself; the film is concerned with whether he’s going to go to hell, or get a “redemption” that would allow him to go to heaven. So two attorneys in a dingy underworld office must argue the case: Balthazar (Lucian Charles Collier), a young looking guy with an oddly casual accent, gets to make what surely appears to be an open-and-shut case for why this reprehensible killer should go straight to hell, even though the “witnesses” called indicate he had a horrible, abusive father and a drug-addict mother. But not so fast: the white-suited new attorney for Jimmy, an attractive gal named Cassiel (Scottie Thompson) has some pluck and energy to take a deeper look into Jimmy’s past; this includes exploring his atypical relationship with a self-aware prostitute named Angela (Lauryn Canny). Balthazar is being pressured to “close this case down” quickly by a nasty rep for Lucifer named Belial (a fiery Peter Jacobson). And it sure seems like Jimmy is irredeemable; in fact, Cassiel tries to quit the case, figuring this is just NOT going so well. But Mark H Young has some things he wants to say about humanity and justice. “I’m very confused,” Cassiel tells Balthazar at one point. “I put my trust in God. But now that I’ve seen what humans can do with my own eyes, I don’t know what I believe anymore.” And the film does take a more interesting than you’d expect view of what makes a guy bad, with a couple of interesting twists.

LIMBO (Richard Rhiele, Lucian Charles Collier) (publicity still)

There is some dark humor along the way, and a crucial bit of acting levity by Richard Riehle as Phil, a wisecracking stenographer, whom film fans will remember from his role as Tom Smykowski in the cult film OFFICE SPACE. I enjoyed the understated, sort of weary back-and-forth between Collier and Thompson, two actors I was not familiar with; there’s a grudging mutual respect for the very separate worlds of good and evil that each has to represent. We do see various demons with minimal horns sticking out of their heads, including Riehle’s character, walking in and out of various scenes, and there’s an amusing sequence in a hell bar. And by the time Lucifer himself appears near the end (James Purefoy, adding to the endless unique interpretations of a character we’ve been conditioned to ALWAYS be curious about), enough interesting stuff has unfolded in this movie to make Purefoy’s performance a genuine delight.

LIMBO (James Purefoy) (publicity still)

While Temple is mostly one-dimensional in his portrayal as Jimmy, he is certainly unsettling to watch and provides a mostly compelling story arc. Thompson and Collier are both so unconventional they make things move along rather briskly, and Jacobson and Riehle are excellent. LIMBO aims for a fresh look at the most timeless theme in the world, that being good versus evil – and there are times when the plot is really a stretch. Jimmy doesn’t give us enough depth to care that much about him, and certainly there are questions of plausibility throughout. But I truly liked the setup of this film, and the whole notion of everyone getting a “trial” to see which way they are going after they die. The script has more panache than I expected, and I would say Young is a director to watch. I was never bored watching LIMBO; in fact, I am kind of eager to see it again. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, considering my not so enthusiastic attitude when the opening credits first rolled.