By Ken Hall.
A serviceable, well-made Western with some compelling characters and excitingly staged action scenes.”
Directed by Australian Richard Gray and filmed in Montana, Murder at Yellowstone City appears at the outset to be just another Leone-influenced “realistic” Western. As the narrative progresses, however, the film, scripted by Eric Belgau, begins to echo more traditional Westerns which concerned themes such as redemption and familial conflict. These plot points are focused on two characters: the town sheriff Ambrose (Gabriel Byrne) and the town preacher Thaddeus Murphy (Thomas Jane), activating a dichotomy often central to Westerns between official justice and more religious or spiritual concerns. When Robert Dunnigan (Zach McGowan) is killed after unwisely advertising his gold strike, the sheriff arrests an African American man named Cicero (Isaiah Mustafa), basing his arrest primarily on circumstantial evidence, the presence of some gold on the man’s person. No implication is made that the sheriff has any racial bias, but as evidence of Cicero’s innocence mounts, the sheriff simply refuses to correct his error or even to acknowledge the possibility of wrongful arrest. The preacher turns detective to determine the truth about the self-named Cicero, who displays an uncommon level of literacy, trading Shakespeare lines with the local saloonkeeper Edgar Blake (Richard Dreyfuss). Like the local law enforcer Little Bill (Gene Hackman) in Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992), Sheriff Ambrose is almost Mosaic in dispensing what he perceives as justice, but unlike Little Bill, Ambrose explains his motivation (in a conversation with the preacher) as stemming from once having let go a man who appeared innocent but who turned out to be a killer. The preacher figure echoes Western characters like the preacher played by Glenn Ford in Heaven with a Gun (Lee H. Katzin, 1969), a reformed gunfighter who has turned to religion as a moral correction and guidance for the future.
As the preacher and his wife Alice (Anna Camp) investigate the murder of which Cicero is accused, events accelerate dangerously, with more violence dividing the traumatized townspeople. Soon the factions in the small town line up in a lopsided fashion, with supporters of the sheriff outnumbering those who believe in Cicero’s innocence. As in the evocative Ray Milland Western A Man Alone (R. Milland, 1955), improper investigation combined with prejudiced perspective place a stranger passing through town into the eye of a terrifying cycle of violence. The artificiality of the town film set, locale of most of the violence, contrasts starkly with the beautifully shot landscapes outside town limits, but neither setting is free of violence, deception, and hatred.
Gabriel Byrne, Thomas Jane, and Anna Camp give creditable performances as the principal adversaries from the town. Isaiah Mustafa works well within the confines of his challenging role, in which he maintains silence for rather long stretches, relying on facial expression to convey his understandable frustration with his threatening situation. One of the more interesting characters in the film is the tragic Lakota Sioux woman Violet, played with the correct level of pathos by Tanaya Beatty. This film is a serviceable, well-made Western with some compelling characters and excitingly staged action scenes.
Ken Hall (Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1986; MA, University of NC-Chapel Hill, 1978) is professor emeritus of Spanish at ETSU, where he had taught since 1999, and a regular contributor to Film International and Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His publications include Professionals in Western Film and Fiction (McFarland, 2019), John Woo: The Films (McFarland,  2012), John Woo’s The Killer (Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Stonewall Jackson and Religious Faith in Military Command (McFarland, 2005) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the Cinema (Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 1989).