One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 73
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
There’s been an explosion in visibility for the great state of Montana in movie theaters and on TV screens in recent years. The wide-open spaces, sweeping mountain ranges, sprawling forests, glistening rivers, ranches, reservations, Native Americans, cowboys, horses, rattlesnakes…all those things help make Montana Montana (on-screen, that is). Those aren’t what a born-and-bred New Yorker like me typically dives into. But that’s changed over the past couple of years with the opportunities afforded via streaming platforms, a growing sense of metropolitan ennui, a handful of high-profile movies and, in particular, one very entertaining television show.
It’s Yellowstone, of course.
Created by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, the Western drama Yellowstone premiered in the spring of 2018 and just wrapped up its fourth season in January. A large-scale saga that follows the days and nights of a powerful Montana family and their large cattle ranch, as family members regularly clash with a bordering Indian reservation and encroaching land developers, the show stars a very fine Kevin Costner as the family patriarch, John Dutton. Ably supporting him in this frequently violent, crime-filled dynastic drama are Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Cole Hauser as his sons, daughter and dedicated ranch foreman.
To describe Yellowstone as a smash hit is an understatement. While the series initially slid under the radar, it began building a substantial audience during the Covid lockdown, and has since grown into a unstoppable powerhouse. Paramount reported that 14 million viewers have watched Yellowstone’s Season 4 premiere since it dropped in November, 2021, making it the #1 show on all of television last year (including the networks, cable or premium networks).
Clearly, the show has resonated across the nation and not just in the markets where well-produced Western-themed fare traditionally performs strongly. A great cast, superlative production values and juicy “Godfather Goes West” storylines notwithstanding, I think the show’s fresh and invigorating setting of the 41st state of the union also plays a significant role. It’s as good as explanation as any for Yellowstone’s surprising popularity in New York, L.A. and other equally cosmopolitan markets.
The state of Montana has provided the narratives and backdrops on the big screen plenty of times over the years, going back to Allan Dwan's 1954 Technicolor Western Cattle Queen of Montana starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan.
For me, “Montana in the Movies” means the big country filling the screen in a clutch of seminal Seventies films, beginning with a pair of revisionist Westerns by Arthur Penn: Little Big Man (1970) starring Dustin Hoffman as a Little Big Horn survivor and the oddball horse thief tale The Missouri Breaks (1976) with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. There’s also the offbeat caper flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, written and directed by Michael Cimino. That one served as a warm-up of sorts for Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate (1980), an epic Western from United Artists about the Johnson Country War whose scope and size was rivaled only by its disastrous critical and commercial reception, prompting the parent company of UA to sell the studio off to financier Kirk Kerkorian a year later.
Four decades on, Montana remains a player. The last couple of years have seen the release of Anne Kerrigan’s well-received wilderness drama Cowboys (2020), the rough-and-tumble neo-Western Let Him Go (2020) with Kevin Costner, Diane Lane and Lesley Manville and the fiery action thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021), directed by Taylor Sheridan and starring Angelina Jolie as an addled smokejumper.
I’ll cheat a little and also include Jane Campion’s 2021 Oscar favorite The Power of the Dog, which was actually filmed on New Zealand’s striking Maniototo Plain and handsomely stands in for the film’s early 20th century Montana setting.
A couple of upcoming titles on the radar include The Ploughmen, directed by and starring Ed Harris, concerning the strange friendship between a young Montana sheriff and a notorious older murderer; and the aptly named Montana Story by longtime independent filmmaking duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel about two estranged siblings returning home to their family ranch.
But it’s Yellowstone writer/director/producer/actor Taylor Sheridan who’s the primary force behind Montana’s renaissance (albeit a small-screen one, though Sheridan himself describes his episodic series as “sort of like long-form films that are doled out in hour-long installments).
Sheridan’s reign is continuing in a big way with the arrival of a popular Yellowstone prequel and another pair of spin-offs on the way.
Starring Sam Elliott, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Sheridan’s 1883 chronicles John Dutton’s 19th century ancestors as they make their way across the treacherous American West in the hope of a better life. It premiered on the Paramount Network in December and, according to industry trade magazine Variety, had the biggest new series premiere on cable TV since 2015. The show quickly migrated onto sister platform Paramount+ and was the streamer’s most watched series premiere ever.
Still another Paramount Yellowstone prequel will follow the next generation of Duttons, this series set in 1932 during the Prohibition and Great Depression eras. Its name? 1932. The show was announced a couple of weeks ago, a day or so after 1883 was renewed for a second season. Also in the development stage is 6666, a show that will reportedly focus on a popular Yellowstone supporting player as he travels south to begin a new life on the numerically monikered titular Texas ranch.
Both Yellowstone and 1883 are shot in and around the mountain-lined vistas of Southern Montana, which is where the future series are likely to be filmed. Sheridan seems to be doing for the state’s Beartooth and Big Horn Mountain ranges what John Ford did for the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley with his classic westerns Stagecoach (1939) My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956) and at least a half-dozen others: creating a strong and immediate association between his entertainment properties and their panoramic backdrops.
Yellowstone’s universe is expanding. So is Taylor Sheridan’s.
And so is Montana’s.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.