Producers: Richard Gray, Rob Menzies, Lisa Wolofsky, Kelly Frazier, Anjul Nigram and Julie Stagner Director: Richard Gray Screenplay: Eric Belgau Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Thomas Jane, Isaiah Mustafa, Anna Camp, Aimee Garcia, Emma Kenney, Nat Wolff, Richard Dreyfuss, Scottie Thompson, John Ales, Tanaya Beatty, Zach McGowan, Danny Bohnen, Lew Temple, Ron Garritson, Lia Marie Johnson, Scotty Bohnen and Isabella Ruby Distributor: RLJE Films
Richard Gray’s follow-up to his soporific “Robert the Bruce” is equally phlegmatic, which is unfortunate because in theory an Old West murder mystery has promise, and the cast is a strong one. But Eric Belgau’s script for “Murder at Yellowstone City” needed reshaping and tightening (he also penned “Robert,” while Gray’s flaccid direction accentuates its weaknesses rather than ameliorating them. (Joe Mitacek’s lethargic editing doesn’t help either.) What might have been an intriguing oddity winds up a dreary bore.
The year is 1881, and the place a once-thriving Montana town that’s dying because the mine that provided its life’s blood has closed down. There’s still a saloon run by Shakespeare-spouting Edgar (Richard Dreyfuss) and Mickey (John Ales), his partner in more senses that one, where Isabel Santos (Aimee Garcia) presides over its coterie of ready-to-please-the-customers girls and a few orphan kids. There’s also a jail, where severe widower James Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne) serves as sheriff, with his callow son Jim (Nat Wolff) and hot-tempered Marcus (Danny Bohnen) his deputies, and a church, where stalwart preacher Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane) offers spiritual help to those who wish it, his loyal wife Alice (Anna Camp) at his side.
Murphy also provides burial services, which will be much in demand after a black man calling himself Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa), after the Roman statesman, rides into town and, after leaving his horse at the livery stable run by Violet Running Horse (Tanaya Beatty), whom Edgar and Mickey gave refuge after her village was wiped out, comes to the saloon. The stoic fellow, who has obviously had a difficult past, hits it off with Edgar, with whom he shares a love of the Bard, but everyone else is suspicious of him.
Their attention is quickly diverted, however, by the arrival of Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan), a local prospector who proclaims, with loud whoops and gunshots during the church service, that he’s struck gold. After briefly returning to his cabin to inform his downtrodden wife Emma (Scottie Thompson) of the news, he’s ridden into town not only to share it with the residents who can now expect an economic boom, but to celebrate with Isabel, with whom he has a close relationship despite being married.
Alas, on his way home Robert is waylaid and killed, his bag of gold stolen. Sheriff Ambrose assumes that Cicero is the culprit and promptly locks him up. Reverend Murphy isn’t so sure, and not only investigates the death but hides Cicero from Ambrose after he’s been wounded while trying to escape. Meanwhile more murders occur, which only reinforces the sheriff’s certainty that the stranger is his man and Murphy’s that he isn’t. A prolonged shoot-out between Thaddeus and Alice on the one hand and Ambrose and the townspeople (whose numbers seem to have multiplied astronomically, given how many of them now join the fight) on the other is followed by a final confrontation back up at the Dunnigan cabin.
The script’s set-up is familiar Agatha Christie stuff relocated to Montana (and, to tell the truth, the resolution reflects her usual mode, too, in terms of the responsible party), but Belgau commits a cardinal error by revealing the culprit little more than halfway through. That’s a tactic a master could get away with—Hitchcock, in fact, used it repeatedly—but “Murder at Yellowstone City” is no “Vertigo,” and Gray can’t make it seem like one. That 1958 masterpiece moved slowly, but it was hypnotic; except for its underwhelming, overlong “action” sequences, like that climatic gunfight, “Murder” simply plods along, with lots of verbose expository scenes played out interminably. And frankly there are just too many characters milling about. Presumably that’s to increase the number of suspects, but it merely makes things crowded, and invites a multitude of plot tangents that have to be followed up.
The acting, moreover, is disappointing. Dreyfuss, who also served as one of the many executive producers, brings a little zest to the Bard-quoting barkeep, and though he disappears for long stretches has a nice relationship with Ales, and Mustafa brings dignity to the laconic stranger, but Byrne overdoes the moroseness and Jane is oddly generic as the principled Will Kane-type preacher with a mysterious past and a penchant for detective work the sheriff lacks or no longer cares about. (Perhaps it would have helped if he had a more expressive partner than Camp, whose line readings are positively amateurish.) The rest are largely stymied by the dialogue, which aims for a degree of period color it never achieves, especially since Gray has directed them to deliver it ponderously, as if to allow every clue in a presumed whodunit puzzle to make its point.
The Montana locations are evocative, and cinematographer John Garrett delivers some attractive widescreen visuals. Production designer Tessla Hastings and costumer Vicki Hales have constructed a reasonably convincing late nineteenth-century ambience, especially when the winds sweep up to give the sets a dusty overlay. And Mel Elias and Armando Ortega, Jr. contribute a score that apes the conventions of classics like “The Big Country” and “The Magnificent Seven,” though it necessarily comes across as homage.
Perhaps had it been whittled down to a crisp ninety minutes, “Murder at Yellowstone City” might have been an engaging Western murder mystery. But at 127, it expires as surely as its victims.