Outer Range review: Amazon’s excellently-crafted Josh Brolin-starrer is one of the year’s most fascinating shows
Outer Range review: The Amazon Prime Video western sci-fi thriller is a well-crafted show that keeps viewers engaged. The writing is backed by some excellent performance, with lead actor Josh Brolin front and centre.
It’s Drishyam with cowboys and a sci-fi twist in Amazon Prime Video's latest original series Outer Range. Creator Brian Watkins’s genre-bending show is part crime thriller, part emotionally-charged family drama, and part Lost-esque sci-fi mystery. Also read: Halo review: This video game adaptation kicks off right, Shabana makes you proud
Outer Range appears to be Amazon’s response to the Yellowstone hype. Created by Taylor Sheridan, smash-hit Yellowstone stars Kevin Costner as a ranch owner who, over four extremely successful seasons, has had to contend with corruption, politicians, oil companies, and beyond, as everyone tries to grab a slice of his lucrative land.
But the Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Wind River, Hell Or High Water) influence on Outer Range doesn’t stop there. The remote setting, the searing drama, the layered writing which carefully interweaves crime, loss and family, all feel like something taken straight out of the Sheridan playbook. Outer Range takes those familiar elements and douses them in the paranormal, creating something else entirely, concocting an ambitious, spellbinding and excellently crafted cocktail of pain, family and the fantastical.
Set in the remote landscapes of the Wyoming wilderness, Outer Range follows the Abbott family, made up of patriarch Royal (a fantastic Josh Brolin), his wife Cecelia (Lili Taylor) and sons Perry (Tom Pelphrey) and Rhett (Lewis Pullman). As we’re repeatedly reminded by all those who come into contact with them, the Abbots have been through a lot. Perry’s wife Rebecca recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances, leaving her husband and young daughter Amy (Olive Abercrombie). Was she taken? Did she abandon them? An exhaustive investigation yielded no answers, leaving Perry and the Abbotts fractured and hurting. Adding to the family’s woes are the greedy neighbouring Tillerson family who’ve decided to make a play for the Abbotts’ vast land. Not to mention the mysterious Autumn, a young, drifter hippie woman (their words, not mine) who’s been camping on the Abbotts’ land with an unknown agenda who claims to have a spiritual connection to the ranch.
Then, of course, there's the matter of the hole. Strange things keep happening on the Abbott ranch till Royal finally chances upon it. A hole. Bang in the middle of his land is a gaping black hole in the ground with mysterious floating elements. Royal is first awestruck, but gradually drawn to, and increasingly possessive of the void, which has an odd effect on all those who come into contact with it, giving them strange visions.
If that wasn’t enough to suck you in, there’s also the matter of the murder. After a drunken brawl gone too far with the Tillersons, the Abbott brothers find themselves entangled in a murder, which the family tries to desperately cover-up in a Drishyam-esque how-far-would-you-go-for-your-family story. Naturally, the walls start closing in on the Abbotts as they try and protect their own against the cops, their enemies, and those drawn to the unknown mysteries of the void.
Creator and co-writer Brian Watkins, along with directors Jennifer Getzinger, Alonso Ruizpalacios, Amy Seimetz and Lawrence Trilling, skillfully navigates the show’s curiously confounding mix of genre elements with a striking sensitivity. So much so that, at times, you’re so drawn into one facet of the show that you completely forget about the others. Early on there were moments that I was so taken by the escalating tension of Royal scrambling to cover for his sons’ crimes, that I entirely forgot about the matter of the black hole (pun intended).
At its best, the sci-fi side of Outer Range becomes almost incidental. Intriguing as it is, the paranormal is merely a device to suck us into an exploration of a broken family and their pain. While we do get breadcrumbs and some why-is-there-a-black-hole-in-the-back-garden revelations along the way, if you're strictly looking for a sci-fi mystery that offers neatly packaged answers to all the questions it presents, this may well not be the show for you.
A slow burn of the best kind, the exposition here is masterful, slowly drip-feeding us information about the Abbotts, gradually teaching us about their past through their actions in the present. I could genuinely watch endless stunted exchanges between this family of emotionally repressed cowboys wherein what goes unsaid tells you everything. Cowboys brought to life by a towering ensemble of performers led by Josh Brolin at his finest. A formidable performance from an actor known for them, Brolin delicately navigates the trauma, repression and responsibilities of a man out of time.
Not to mention a series of excellent supporting turns, particularly from Tamara Podemski as an indigenous female deputy sheriff Joy. They say great TV will always favour character over plot, but in Outer Range, it's the mood and commanding atmosphere that takes precedence above all else, much of which is down to Andrea Bella’s finely crafted soundscape along with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ piercing score. Between the ensemble of terrific performances and captivating filmmaking that feels reminiscent of everything from Arrival to Zero Zero Zero, it’s impressive just how strong a hold the show has over us, despite its reluctance to offer up easy answers and take giant, more “bingeable” narrative swings.
In less capable hands this could have easily made for a frustrating, impatient experience but there’s something hauntingly hypnotic about Outer Range that demands you stay with it, even when its hold over you slackens. During much of the fifth and sixth episodes, for example, the delicate balance of character, plot and atmospherics goes awry and the narrative loses steam as you start feeling the length. Things start to feel too internalised and trippy as the escalating stakes and slow-burn intrigue began to take a back seat
By the end of the eight-episode series, I can’t claim to have connected with every aspect of it or understood what it’s going for in its entirety, but it nonetheless made me feel for and with its characters and their pain, which I suspect the makers would consider a success. There's much to be said for a show with such a distinct vision that just goes for it, defying so many conventions and demands of being palatable There’s much to be admired in the courage of the show which, at its core, is a mesmerising tale about missing people. People who go missing, yes, but also those missing from their marriages, missing from the lives they dreamed of, and absent from who their loved ones need them to be.