Connect with us


Review: Yellowstone: Season One

Much of its drama comes from waiting for a responsible authority to intervene as conflicts spiral out of control.




Yellowstone: Season One
Photo: Paramount

Drama and political intrigue in Yellowstone derive from property disputes, over land and livestock owned by John Dutton (Kevin Costner). Dutton is the wizened, obsessive proprietor of the sprawling Yellowstone Ranch, desperate to protect his property from would-be encroachers: the savvy new chief of the Broken Rock Reservation, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham), who’s using political pressure to try and reclaim Dutton’s land, and yuppie land developers who are building condos that border the Yellowstone property. The show’s Montana is presented as a legal gray area where the only requisite for owning cattle is having them wander onto your land, and where politicians are buyable assets. Much of Yellowstone’s drama comes from waiting for a responsible authority to intervene as conflicts spiral out of control.

Dutton is the patriarch of a fractured family, taking extreme measures to protect his legacy and secure his family’s future. It’s a familiar premise, which the series attempts to elevate by assessing the nature of power and prerogative in a frontier environment. Yellowstone resists framing Dutton, its nominal protagonist, as either victim of change or occupier. His empire is merely evidence of the way power and wealth are self-reinforcing. Insofar as the series ponders whether any one man should have all that property, series creator Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote and directed all 10 episodes, doesn’t propose an answer. Instead, he provides Dutton with equally ruthless and flawed rivals, who hold similarly tenuous claims to the land they desire.

The irony of Native Americans attempting to acquire white-owned land is obvious, but the relationship between Dutton and Rainwater is more than just a reimagining of the typical power dynamic between whites and Native Americans. Rainwater is among the show’s most intriguing characters, his political shrewdness obscuring his motivations, so you may wonder if he’s a protective leader or a power-hungry politician. Yellowstone, which rarely shies from complexity, suggests that he might be both. In the show’s feature-length pilot, the only episode made available to critics, Rainwater notches a political victory by instigating a tense border standoff with Dutton. Rainwater’s tactic reflects his understanding of his optic leverage in a situation that finds rich white men staring down Native Americans through rifle scopes.

Yellowstone displays the aesthetic hallmarks of frontier life that adorn much of Sheridan’s work. The series at times suggests a red-state lifestyle catalog, flush as it is with Carhartt work clothes, denim shirts, hunting binoculars, bulletproof vests, pick-up trucks, and so many cowboy hats. It sketches a basic outline of white working-class masculinity, and reserves its most intriguing insights for the way its ranchers are affected by the territory they occupy. Like Sheridan’s screenplays for Sicario and Wind River, Yellowstone roots itself in society’s margins, specifically near territorial borders, and presents a jarring portrait of flourishing corruption in the absence of oversight.

Dutton isn’t always a compelling figure. He’s an amalgam of patriarchal tropes, a mixture of volatile mafia don and cruel businessman. He wears the burden of protecting his wealth on his humorless face and in the business platitudes he spouts to his adult children across a vast emotional distance. Costner’s years of playing leathery, down-home figures lend gravity and comfortable familiarity to the role, but Dutton remains a rote exercise. For instance, he doesn’t cry in front of his children at a funeral—and the scene of him eventually sobbing alone in a barn, surrounded by horses, feels like an overly obvious and belabored affirmation of Dutton’s rancher bona fides. The intended emotional gut punch of the scene is undermined by the hoary image of a man who’s more at ease with animals than people.

The Dutton children are more intriguing characters than their father, perhaps because being lorded over by such a demanding figure has afflicted them with rather nuanced flaws. Beth (Kelly Reilly) is a businesswoman even more cutthroat than Dutton—and a rare example of a woman in a Sheridan project who thrives rather than merely survives. She’s first introduced in a meeting at her investment firm, where she drives the owner of a flagging business nearly to tears, and Reilly imbues her with a confidence and cruelty that can be thrilling to behold. Her brother, the more sympathetic Cory Dutton (Luke Grimes), lives on the nearby reservation, estranged from his family. That he’s caught in the middle of the conflict between his father and the reservation seems to reflect Sheridan’s view of Yellowstone’s uncompromising landscape. As Cory is forced to one side of the border, the series undergirds its dramatic portrait of generational wealth with a sense of more tangible tragedy.

Based on the events of the first episode, Sheridan doesn’t seem interested in endorsing either side of the show’s central conflict, content instead to simply observe it as it unfolds. It’s as if he wishes to erect a sprawling capitalist allegory within the show’s ultimately sentimental view of the American West. A tension exists between Yellowstone’s appreciation of cowboy culture and its unwillingness to lionize Dutton or Rainwater, and above all, Sheridan seems to lament the land caught in the middle of forces both political and economic.

The purest villain in the series is Dan Jenkins (Danny Huston), a caricature of a real estate mogul attempting to inundate Montana with condos and artisanal ice-cream shops. He’s referred to as a “transplant” in the series, and the word is employed with the hateful vigor of a slur. The only thing that seems to separate Jenkins from Rainwater and Dutton, though, is that this mogul is overt in his attempts to commodify a romantic view of the country. And while Sheridan rapturously agrees that these men all have the right to covet Yellowstone, he resists framing any of them as being worthy of its majesty. Looking out over his Ranch, Dutton at one point says, “If a man had all the money in the world, this is what he would buy.” In Yellowstone, power and wealth are accrued by characters who rarely seem to deserve either.

Cast: Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilly, Kelsey Asbille, Luke Grimes, Wes Bentley, Gil Birmingham, Cole Hauser, Brecken Merrill, Dave Annable, Ian Bohen Airtime: Paramount, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.



Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.




Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

Continue Reading


Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.




True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

Continue Reading


Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.




Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

Continue Reading


Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:


You can also make a donation via PayPal.