Amazon’s ‘Outer Range’ Tosses a Supernatural Western Omelet Down a Black Hole
Amazon’s “Outer Range,” is a multi-hyphenate and open-ended series. Its genres include science fiction, western, soap opera, multigenerational family drama, and murder mystery. It is equal parts an Ingmar Bergman film, adding emptiness to a deserted room, and a Bruce Springsteen song, shining light on a darkness at the edge of town. The eight-episode season is about a family with secrets, and the void which binds them. Royal Abbott (Josh Brolin) is the patriarch of a clan which has been ranching in Wyoming for generations. They are hit with a disputed property claim over a 600-acre stretch of land with nothing in it. Literally, because there is a hole in the center of the field deeper than the bottomless chasm of family relations.
Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton), the rival baron of the neighboring cattle ranch, is also interested in the hole at the center of the west lot. His son, Luke Tillerson (Shaun Sipos), the Draco Malfoy of the family, is bribing and bullying his way through his father’s footsteps, but only imagines as a lot of nothing until he sees the dollar signs in the crop circles. Royal makes a generous counter-offer for a different parcel of land, but whatever lies at the center of their borders is beyond price to each family head. It is also beyond words, as each man greedily hangs on to syllables like they are magic rocks. Both are called crazy by their families, who are all well-acquainted with aspects of the condition on an individual basis, and as a whole.
Royal’s son, Perry (Tom Pelphrey), lost his wife nine months before the events in the series. She’s not dead, as far as anyone knows. He just can’t find her. After a few episodes, viewers may begin to wonder if she got lost in the hole. This series gives us a lot of time to reflect. Time is the essence of “Outer Range,” but its overarching plot is a murder mystery, with plenty of guilt to throw around. Royal’s other son Rhett (Lewis Pullman) is a hard-drinking, fast-living, bull rider on his way to the championship, who also gets tossed around a lot. Cecilia Abbott (Lili Taylor), the matriarch whose family owned the land for over a century, rides a much more treacherous beast. Keeping it all away from her young granddaughter, Amy (Olive Abercrombie), whose father Perry is probably going to jail, where we can only hope he will be sent to the hole.
For the most part, “Outer Range” moves at a leisurely pace, building on the very soil under the characters’ feet. The desolate landscape of the wide-open prairie is as isolated as each of the characters’ inner journeys, and only really comes to life when whole mountain ranges disappear. Busy camerawork vies with lingering aerial shots, only to lose to nighttime action scenes, shot so dark, the imagination has to fill in the holes.
“Outer Range” parses out its most mysterious fun when Autumn Rivers (Imogen Poots) goes off her meds. She is a rich, backpacking interloper camping out on the Abbott land, and making deep connections with everyone in both families. Autumn leaves her mark, oozing ultrasonic sexual communication directly into the camera with a mesmerizing rant filled with absurdist mysticism. It is just about to make sense when Autumn flies into a rage of frustrated confusion. “The whole world has been waiting for something like this,” she tells Royal, before pushing him into the hole.
Besides a wickedly warped western movie duel-in-the-center-of-town gag, the series mischievously infuses music with suspense and a sly sense of humor. There is a heavy metal club just outside town, which is ludicrously cinematic. Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski), an Indigenous acting sheriff running for the job full time, gets her best political idea from the Evil Spirit Singers. The first sign we get that Wayne is a little off, is when he sings along to Vikki Carr’s 1967 pop hit, “It Must Be Him.” His least apparent heir, Billy (Noah Reid), digs his spurs into the mental cacophony at his slain brother Trevor’s (Matt Lauria) burial, shoveling a Kate Bush cover over his hole.
Created by Brian Watkins, “Outer Range” only unearths the hole. It doesn’t explain it. Royal tries to fill it in, cover it over, rope it off, and shoot it up, but he doesn’t question it. Ancient bison stampede out of it, monolithic derricks grind in its murky depths, and helicopters fly over it, none of the characters asks about it. The series opens with a few words about the titan Cronus for vague reference. Best known for giving us the word “chronology” and eating his own babies, the ancient Greeks believed he cut a hole in the cosmos, “to separate the known from the unknown.” The series puts a lot of weight on the hole, but never tries to get to the bottom of it.
Cecilia is hands-on believer in Christian faith, dragging the family to church by the ear, and testifying in person. She is offset by Royal, who calls her lord and savior out like it is high noon at the OK Corral. “I’m asking you to come down here and explain yourself,” the elder Abbot intones at grace. “Because this world of yours isn’t quite adding up and I hate you for it. I don’t even think I fucking believe in you, but I fucking hate you. Amen.” He should have followed it up with a huge helping of mashed potatoes to move the mountain from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” into the frame.
Royal’s origin story stretches a theoretically promising twist to “No Country for Old Men,” if investigated on “The X-Files.” Superficially weird, the Sci-fi Western is gaining popularity as a subgenre. “Outer Range” is no “Outer Limits,” even with its “Twilight Zone” aspirations. It works best when it is intimate, exploring grief or loneliness under a microscope of borrowed time. It is eerily frustrating, and frighteningly casual.
“Outer Range” season one begins streaming April 15 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Amazon Prime Video.