“Just tell me who to fight.” – Kelly Reilly’s Beth Dutton to her father, John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner.
“Everyone.” – John Dutton’s reply.
Blood dripping from the forehead of a man walking around in a daze. A gun in that man’s hand.
A severely injured horse that needs to be put out of his misery. Overturned vehicles. A blistering sun, high in the sky.
The aftermath of chaos.
These are the dominating images in the very first scene of the 10-part series “Yellowstone” — and thanks to those jarring visuals, you can’t say you haven’t been warned. Based on the first three episodes (including the feature-length pilot), this is a gorgeously photographed, blood-soaked, sometimes wildly over-the-top Big Sky Soap Opera.
“Yellowstone” premieres Wednesday on the Paramount Network, formerly known as Spike TV. It’s a hoot and a holler. With Kevin Costner (“Silverado,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Open Range”) in the saddle as a family-first patriarch rancher, a tremendous supporting cast that includes reliable veterans such as Danny Huston and Jill Hennessy, and first-rate production values, “Yellowstone” is consistently engrossing, even when the material is extra pulpy and the multiple storylines become more than a bit confusing and muddled.
The show is set in present-day Montana but also seems to exist in a world of its own. Feuds old and new usually result in bloodshed — and not necessarily arrests or trials. When the locals take matters into their own hands, that means everything from shooting their rivals to burying or incinerating their remains.
Imagine “Dallas” set in modern times, with the writers given the freedom to go for R-rated violence and language and nudity. Or “The Sopranos” on the range. Or “Sons of Anarchy,” with horses instead of motorcycles.
The “SOA” analogy might be the most fitting — especially given “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan’s history. Before Sheridan skyrocketed to A-list feature screenwriter status with “Hell or High Water,” “Sicario” (and the upcoming sequel) and “Wind River” (which he also directed), Sheridan was best known for playing Deputy Chief of Police David Hale on “Sons of Anarchy.”
Writer-director-producer Sheridan has a great eye for stunning visuals and a great ear for sharp and cynical dialogue — and he’s not shy about going for some bizarre and bold touches, whether it’s the jarring sight of ranchers fly-fishing while perched atop their horses, or intense scenes of branding.
Not cattle. Humans. Humans get branded with the “Y” for “Yellowstone” logo. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Of course Costner in his comfort zone playing the grizzled John Dutton, a widower whose family ranch in Montana is “the size of Rhode Island,” as one foe puts it — but there’s greatness in the ways Costner peels back layer after layer to reveal more about Dutton.
One moment, we feel as if John truly cares about preserving Montana’s unfettered splendor. The next moment, we’re sure he just wants to vanquish his enemies, at any cost.
Kelly Reilly gives a go-big-or-go-home performance as John’s daughter Beth, a ruthless negotiator who will destroy a rival in a corporate boardroom but is a total mess in her personal life, self-medicating with booze and sex, always looking for a fight.
Luke Grimes does much quieter but equally effective work as John’s son Kayce, who is married to a Native American (Kelsey Asbille) and lives on reservation land, placing him squarely in the middle of the ongoing and quickly escalating feud between the Duttons and the Native Americans.
Gil Birmingham is Thomas Rainwater, the newly elected leader of the local reservation, who intends to use the mountains of cash from the reservation’s casino as leverage in his war against Dutton. Danny Huston is the obligatory greedy developer who wants to tear up the land and build luxury condos.
Oh, and then there’s Jill Hennessy as a U.S. senator positioning herself as Rainwater’s ally, and Wendy Moniz as Gov. Lynelle Perry, who enjoys regular “lunches” with Dutton — and Cole Hauser as “Rip Wheeler,” which is the kind of character name that tells you “Yellowstone” isn’t taking itself too seriously.
There ARE moments when the show is legitimately haunting and gorgeous and cool, as when a phalanx of bulldozers and trucks and land surveyors move across the land in formation, as if they’re invading an enemy’s land. (Which is exactly what they’re doing.) But then we get a scene of a naked Beth with a bottle of champagne in each hand, taking a bath in full view of the ranch hands, or a sequence where a little boy goes up against a rattlesnake and stomps the life out of that snake — and we’re back in B-movie-on-TV territory.
Still. We don’t go too long without another scene of Costner in a cowboy hat, riding a horse, urging his sons and daughter to do better, shooting steely gazes at the fools that dare challenge him.
And that’s a sure thing.
8 p.m. Wednesdays on the Paramount Network.