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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

Violence, brutality and a flicker of love are the ties that bind the Dutton dynasty in ‘1923’ pilot

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren star as Jacob and Cara Dutton in “1923.” (James Minchin III/Paramount+)

“Violence has always haunted this family…where it doesn’t follow, we hunt it down, we seek it.” — Voice-over narration in the pilot episode of “1923.”

Truer words have never been spoken about the Dutton clan, no matter the century or the decade, from the brutally unforgiving wagon-train journey of the post-Civil War generation chronicled in “1883” or the seemingly endless modern-day conflicts erupting in and around the family’s sprawling ranch in “Yellowstone.” And as we see in the Expanding Taylor Sheridan Universe (ETSU!) entry “1923,” hardly a week goes by without someone throwing a punch or unholstering a gun or facing their mortality.

As Harrison Ford’s Jacob Dutton in “1923” puts it when a colleague says the easy years are the only reason worth enduring the tough years: “I’ve been here since 1894 … I do not remember an easy year.”

With the iconic duo of Ford and Helen Mirren (reunited after starring in “The Mosquito Coast” back in 1986) heading an impressive cast, cinematic-quality visuals, sprawling set pieces and a myriad of promising storylines, the pilot episode of “1923” holds the promise of yet another addictively compelling project from Sheridan. It’s further proof that no matter where we’ve landed on the Dutton family tree, there’s going to be a LOT of action — and some choice dialogue.

‘1923’ — Pilot episode

At the outset of “1923,” the Yellowstone ranch has been settled under guidance of the grizzled, no-nonsense Jacob Dutton, the brother of the late James Dutton from “1883.” Jacob is married to the loyal and loving Cara (Mirren), and the two have raised James’ sons as their own. John Dutton Sr. (James Badge Dale) is Jacob’s right-hand man on the ranch, while Spencer Dutton (Brandon Sklenar) is a World War I veteran dealing with PTSD while traveling through Africa as a hired marksman specializing in taking out rogue big cats. Spencer’s storyline, which includes flashbacks to WWI, allows for spectacular set pieces, and Sklenar shows true star potential in a fascinating role.

The pilot introduces a number of other subplots, including the introduction of Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves in a strong performance), a young Indigenous woman at a parochial school where she is abused by the cruel Sister Mary (Jennifer Ehle). Some of the sequences in this middle section are almost unbearable to watch — especially when we’re introduced to the headmaster, Father Renaud (Sebastian Roché), who might be even more sadistic and terrifying than Sister Mary.

As for land owner and Montana livestock commissioner Jacob, he’s dealing with everything from a plague of locusts to a drought to cattle disease to the growing threats posed by sheepherders led by the hot-headed Banner Creighton (Jerome Flynn), who doesn’t respect borders and fences, and is spoiling for a fight. (Jacob dismisses the sheep herders as “Bullies whining about the consequences of the rules they broke.”)

The pilot even squeezes in a romantic subplot, with great-nephew Jack Dutton (Darren Mann) having to break the news to his betrothed, Elizabeth, (Michelle Randolph) that their wedding will have to be postponed for a cattle drive. It’s left to the wise Cara to comfort Elizabeth and explain to her, “You’ll miss more than weddings for cattle, my dear … you have to want more than the boy, you have to want the life, too, because in this life there’s no debating what’s more important, the wedding or the cattle. It’s always the cattle.”

That is and was the Yellowstone way. Even in 1923.

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