• Dane Bundy

Yellowstone and The Godfather on Horseback



I remember the first time I heard of The Godfather (1972). I was in grade school and someone asked my friend what his favorite movie was. "The Godfather," he responded. Interesting choice for an 11 or 12 year-old, but he did have Sicilian roots.


It wasn't until after college that I finally sat down and watched the epic film. In terms of craftsmanship -- directing, writing, acting -- it's simply remarkable. Who can deny it? The American Film Institute ranks the original The Godfather (1972) as the third greatest film in the last 100 years. But, as you know, The Godfather and its subsequent installments follow a bent storyline.


As a reminder, a bent story is one in which good is not distinct from evil.


In stories like this, we often find ourselves sympathetic to those operating outside the bounds of the law and biblical morality. In this case, the Corleone family.


I'm going to pivot briefly, because there's a fascinating story behind the production of Training Day (2001). This violent, gruesome, and (dare I say) fascinating film is about a crooked, but winsome cop (played Denzel Washington) who takes an idealistic rookie under his wing (played by Ethan Hawke). In the original script, Denzel Washington's character, Alonzo Harris, gets away with his crimes in the end, making this film truly bent. But supposedly after reading the script, Denzel wrote across it "The wages of sin is death" and then returned it. The script was subsequently re-written so that Alonzo Harris dies in a way that offers justice. That change, if it really took place, transformed the movie from bent to whole. It's one of the reasons why the film is so powerful.


Similar threads run through The Godfather and Training Day. Are there redemptive elements in The Godfather (1972)? I recently went back and re-watched the film, thinking there's a whisper of "the wages of sin is death" woven throughout it. I was hoping for a takeaway that those who live by violence die by it and that mob-life is not all glamour and glory. Well, I didn't see it. It's a high-quality film, but as it concluded, I thought: Do I want Michael to fall to the other mob families or do I want to see him consolidate his empire like a Roman ruler? Yeah, it was the latter. And that's a hallmark trait of a bent film. The next step would be for me to watch part 2 and 3 and ask similar questions. Perhaps you have some insight here.


ON HORSEBACK


This leads me to the popular television show "Yellowstone" (2018 - ). Over the last year or so, multiple people mentioned the show, so I decided to look into it before I invested many hours. While reading some of the reviews, one viewer mentioned that "Yellowstone" is The Godfather on Horseback. What a clever description. (If you saw the title of this article, laughed, thought Dane Bundy is brilliant, and are now reading it, I need to clarify: "The Godfather on Horseback" phrasing is not mine.)


And, spoiler alert, after watching three seasons of "Yellowstone," The Godfather on Horseback is an accurate description in terms of plot.


The main reason I decided to watch the show is because of its co-creator, Taylor Sheridan. He wrote the film Sicario (2015) starring Emily Blunt. And he wrote Hell or Highwater (2016) with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges.



Both films are crime dramas, though from different perspectives. I'd like to spend a little bit of time walking through them. Warning: I'm going to spoil their storylines.


LAND OF THE WOLVES


Sicario is my first choice of the two. A key reason is that it has a clearer moral backbone than Hell or Highwater. Sicario is a violent and difficult film to watch at times, but what's most interesting about it is how the filmmaker gets us to experience the story: through the eyes of the young, naive, quixotic FBI-agent, Kate Mercer (Blunt).


About 5 or 6 six minutes into the film, Kate is drawn into a morally dubious government operation that brings her face-to-face with the terrifying effects of the drug cartels and those supposedly trying to fight against them. In an important scene, Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro, tells Kate:


You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.

The unsettling and frightening power of this film is that we see these wolves and their land through the eyes of a sheep. She never feels in control and, therefore, neither do we. Manufacturing dramatic tension is undoubtedly one of Taylor Sheridan's strengths as a writer.


Good and evil are distinct from one another in this film and our sympathies naturally lie with Kate, who still understands right and wrong. The corrupt men who trick Kate into their plot are intriguing characters, but I was on team Kate the whole time, hoping she would escape unscathed. The film is certainly a broken one, which means that when the credits roll, the ending weighs down on us emotionally, for evil has won. The wolves roam free and they've devoured our sheep.


The sequel to the film, Sicario: The Day of the Soldado (2018), is quite a departure from the original. The plot follows the wicked men from the last film and doesn't include a relatable sheep-like character. Thus, I didn't connect with the film emotionally, and I wasn't a fan of how it drug us through two-full hours of gratuitous bent muck. But that's just my opinion.


[NOTE: I don't recommend Sicario or its sequel for children, or even young teens. If you're considering watching it as a family, read this Plugged In review by the Focus on the Family staff.]


IN PURSUIT OF JUSTICE


Let's turn to Hell or Highwater (2016). I don't think this is as good of a film as Sicario, but it's a film that I've returned to a number of times.


Hell or Highwater is about Toby Howard (played by Chris Pine), an out-of-work father, who is struggling to keep his home, because Texas Midland Bank is on the verge of foreclosing his property. When Toby's brother, Tanner Howard (played by Ben Foster), exits prison, he convinces Toby to do whatever it takes to keep the home, and they resort to robbing various branches of Texas Midland to repay the loan. Quickly, Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (played by Jeff Bridges), is on their pursuit.


I must say, this film is very-well written with strong acting, humor, and superb dramatic tension.


But this film is different than Taylor Sheridan's previous work, Sicario; it doesn't just highlight bent characters, it shows us the film through their eyes.


From the beginning of Hell or Highwater, we sympathize with Toby Howard. He is handsome, kind, and honorably-intentioned: all he wants to do is leave his home and land to his sons. An understanding viewer might argue that he has no choice but to take back what is rightfully his.


The villains are clearly laid out for us. Texas Midland Bank is a predatory institution, basically deserving the wrath of this hurting father. The Texas Ranger, representing the law, is a crusty, foul-mouthed, alcoholic, racist. Pretty quickly, we dislike him. With that said, Hamilton's partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), a man of Native American Indian descendant, is more of an upstanding character.


I won't detail the ending for you, but I will spoil it.


The father, Toby Howard, gets what he wants in the end, though certainly not without great sacrifice. Texas Midland Bank and the law lose. The movie leads us to see that these "villains" get what they deserve. The final credits show us a dusty Robin Hood looking out on the rough and barren Texas landscape. Justice served.