Television

Outer Range Adds Eerie Supernatural Twist to Modern Ranch Drama

Josh Brolin stars in mysterious new Amazon Prime show.

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Outer Range. Available now on Amazon Prime.

If you took Yellowstone and crossed it maybe with Turn of the Screw, you might come up with something like Amazon's spooky new modern Western, Outer Range. (Or Beth Dutton might just kill you. Let me know.) Always weird, sometimes annoying, but frequently fascinating, Outer Range has Yellowstone's same sense of a cowboy family unaware that it has lived out its time—but in this case, the encroachment is not being done by modernity, but something antediluvian that's returned for a possession it left behind.

Outer Range stars Josh Brolin as Royal Abbott, the head of an old Wyoming ranching family that suddenly finds itself beset with problems. The wife of one of his sons has disappeared without a trace, leaving behind her young daughter. (Almost as disturbing as the disappearance is the little girl's seeming indifference to it.) Disturbingly, cattle are vanishing, one or two at a time; and buffalo are appearing out of nowhere—sometimes, disconcertingly, with American Indian arrows and lances lodged in their bodies. A space-cadet hippie has shown up at the ranch asking to camp there, for no comprehensible reason, and even more incomprehensibly to his family, Abbott has agreed.

The most pressing problem is that the bullying family on a neighboring ranch has put in a claim for several hundred acres that have been in Abbott's wife's family for 150 years. In what Abbott's lawyer calls "a good old-fashioned topical fuck-job," the rival Tillersons are taking advantage of a 19th-century drafting error committed when Wyoming was altering its county lines, but the Abbott attorney says fighting them will be useless and expensive: "The Tillersons don't lose."

Most menacing of all, while chasing a runaway steer on a remote range of his ranch—the very part of the land that the Tillersons are trying to make off with—Abbott discovers a perfectly circular and, from all appearances, bottomless, pit. What the pit is, where it came from and what—if anything—it's doing are not apparent, but it's instantly recognizable as a useful thing in which to toss blood-spattered clothing and lifeless corpses.

Abbott's chronic stoicism is rattled by the family troubles, especially that inexplicable pit. Usually indifferent or even hostile to religion—when his family goes to Sunday church services, he sits in the back pews reading a newspaper—Abbott one night insists on a prayer at the supper table which turns into more of a third degree. "Maybe you can give us some hint as to what you're up to," Abbott demands of God, "because I don't have the first fucking clue."

Abbott's sudden interest in religion cannot mask his burgeoning nihilism. When he discovers that Autumn, the hippie poet girl (Imogene Poots, I Know This Much Is True) has pitched her tent near the ominous pit, he warns her off; she blows him off. "The world plays out how it's supposed to, so there's nothing to worry about," she replies blithely, but has no answer for his bleak question: "What if it's supposed to turn out bad?"

Like that conversation, the tone of Outer Range is mostly grim. But it shifts markedly into absurdist humor when Abbott interacts with his land-grabbing neighbor, Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton, Yellowstone). The aging Tillerson has started to go around the bend—he's introduced in a scene in which he's chatting amiably with a mounted buffalo head—but his off-the-rails conversation sometimes seems to mask something squirrely in the reality of the remote Wyoming range country in which they live.

When Abbot asks why he won't agree to make a deal over the land, Tillerson responds with a detailed description of the post-modernist erotic art collection he used to have ("the walls were covered in smut that would make your toes curl") but abandoned because it never satisfied him. "What got my heart racing was what I couldn't see, what I didn't know about, what was hidden from me," Tillerson notes. "What kept me looking—I was born to hunt." The explanation is as chilling as it is cryptic.

Like Yellowstone, Outer Range is built around the relationships in a family built around a stolid American male of an earlier generation, no fascist but also no believer in healing crystals. (Brolin practically channels Yellowstone's Kevin Costner in his performance, which I don't intend as a criticism.) The unnerving question of Outer Range is what happens when that stolidity is subverted.

As engrossing as Outer Range is, it would be even more so if creator-producer Brian Watkins didn't have such a thirst for incoherence. His scripts are sometimes too laconic for their own good. And his penchant for a literal definition of film noir, bathing practically every scene in impenetrable darkness, as if Wyoming has outlawed any lightbulb stronger than 25 watts, is extraordinarily irritating. A couple of times he fixes his camera on that pit, where something is apparently going on, but you're never going to figure out what it is unless you download the Braille version.

NEXT: Americans Will Spend 6.5 Billion Hours on Income Taxes This Year

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  1. Thanos always said he wanted to retire to a quiet life on his farm.

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  2. That dark lighting of videos always annoys me. There was a great series with JK Simmons, about spies and doppelgangers in Cold War Germany, but I just couldn't get past not being able to see much. I'll pass this one up for the same reason.

    1. the Simmons show was awesome AND forgettable enough that I can't remember what it was called. Counterpart?

      1. Correct.

  3. Watched the first two episodes. Not bad, but part of it did take me out of the story. The two brothers discussing the future of the farm and one of them said something to the extent that "Dad's way will never compete with the commercial guys". Ranchers are the commercial guys. Tyson, etc don't own the ranches, for the most part, they're family ran operations and there's a reason they're referred to as commercial cow calf operations (because we sell our calves). It's just another example of Hollywood not quite understanding what they are writing about. I've found the same thing with The Ranch, and not quite so much but occasionally on Yellowstone. I'm still waiting to watch the hands have to go out in sub zero temperatures to insure water tanks are open, or dealing with a calf killing blizzard in April, which we just got through (I lost one of the three calves that have been born so far, despite doing everything possible to warm it up and save it, one tenth of my paycheck out the fucking window).

    1. You expected hollywood/amazon/that in-group to actually comprehend the people or the area they were making a series on? That way lies madness. Ugh, I don't miss working on frozen water lines in sub-zero, but I wouldn't trade that suck for a cushy job.

    2. He's sitting on a few thousand view acres worth millions. No tears here for the poor rancher and his endangered way of life. Subdivision, Thanos.

      1. Once every acre of ranch land gets bulldozed and subdivided, you will not like the results.
        My family is one with lots of land as well. Really nice land, very much like pictured in the series under discussion. Of course, it only looks so good because we have been picking up rocks and clearing brush for five generations. And fixing fences, running poachers off, etc. Like any business, making it work without going broke is always a struggle.
        Yes, we could sell the land, and then we could all buy condos and watch TV until we melt into the furniture.
        You could say the same for lots of places and institutions. Museums constantly plea for funds, when they are often sitting on prime real estate and have walls filled with expensive artwork.
        Like those running the museums, we see ourselves as stewards of the land, with the duty to pass it to the next generation in a better state than we received it. My great grandfather planted huge numbers of trees, which he knew he would not live to sit in the shade of. Beyond that, there are sections of old growth forest that he, or later family members could have clear cut for a profit when times were difficult. But some things are more important than short term profits.
        I totally sympathize with the family on the show about encroaching neighbors. We have had people literally move fences to sneakily try to take roads and ponds. Or cut fences to let their livestock graze on our grass instead of their tangled brush.

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  5. I know next to nothing abound modern ranch dramas.

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