Killer Instinct

An Appreciation of Kelly Reilly in YELLOWSTONE

“I don’t think she’s made it through a full meal since she was 11.”

Beth Dutton (Kelly Reilly) may not carry a gun, but she’s the most lethal character in Yellowstone. Taylor Sheridan’s clunky, crotchety Neo-western television program set in an around Boseman, Montana is mostly disposable fun, but Beth’s furious presence always elevates it to a more complex level. One of the most notable reasons why concerns her warrior-like ability to cut men down with words. She’s a take-no-prisoners kind of communicator. The classic misogyny of Hollywood usually emphasizes how a female character makes an entrance, and Beth’s shatteringly brutally executed exits counter that notion nicely.

At one point during the first season of Yellowstone, Beth spends about 10 seconds at the family dinner table before storming off in dramatic fashion. As her rancher baron father John (Kevin Costner) notes in the quote above, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. But Beth’s foul temperament and extreme hatred for weakness, incompetence, and toxic masculinity is the show’s most interesting conceit, affording Reilly many opportunities to unload the kind of verbal barbs and punishing physical blows that seem to be summoned up from the depths of hell.

Thankfully, Beth isn’t just all fire and brimstone. Her unbridled anger toward the world stems from a tension between two great loves in life: money and family. A corporate headhunter by trade, she’s called home by her gangster in a ten gallon hat father to help with a series of crises that plague their massive cattle ranch, one of the largest in America that stretches across a pristine valley of big sky country. Much of their problems revolve around the land itself, what it’s size and landscapes represent to predatory businesses, and the very American legacy of stealing it from First Nations people.

The other Dutton siblings, Beth’s brothers Jaime (Wes Bentley) and Kayce (Luke Grimes), are also asked to assist in these matters depending on their specialities (the former is a lawyer and aspiring politician while the latter is an ex-Navy SEAL who lives with his wife and son on the nearby Broken Rock Reservation). But it’s Beth, the lone daughter who proves to be most effective at fending off threats, from outside and within. Beth’s hatred for Jaime is especially profound. She feels his very existence will be the end of the Dutton legacy, but for the first two seasons her reasons why are kept mostly in the dark.

Like so many modern television dramas, Yellowstone is about power and control. In this case it’s even more specifically concerned with ownership, the underbelly of manifest destiny, and individual claims vs. the public good. Nearly every conflict in Sheridan’s macho genre universe revolves around the Dutton’s generational need to protect one’s property. Yet, Beth’s loyalty isn’t to the land itself (she often confesses that if it was up to her she’d sell the ranch), but to her father, the man who used cowboy ethics and survival tactics to shape her every killer instinct. Another mitigating factor is the death of her mother, and Beth’s culpability in the tragic event. It’s something that has defined every fiber of her being, and as a result made her impervious to fear.

Distinguishing between where Kelly Reilly ends and Beth begins is almost impossible after watching this character for an extended amount of time (I cruised through all three seasons of Yellowstone in a week). Her performance is at times heartbreaking, unnerving, and hilarious, and contains the same kind of swirling menace and charisma that made James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano such an iconic symbol of tragedy.

And still, there’s a creeping duality to the character that cannot be ignored. She’s capable of slitting your throat, but also of feeling wells of emotion and great love. So you can’t really talk about Beth and without talking about Rip (Cole Hauser), the Dutton’s brooding ranch foreman/fixer. Both of their fate’s have been intertwined since Rip came to the ranch as a traumatized orphan, and it’s not until the second season where Beth gives their relationship a puncher’s chance.

While every other coupling in Yellowstone features narrative twists that reek of contrivance, Beth and Rip’s story always feels like a far more romantic and yearning fable. Maybe it’s the electric chemistry shared between Reilly and Hauser, the magnetism of their longing eyes, and the selfless devotion they mutually feel.

In many ways, Beth and Rip are born from the same gunslinger mentality passed on by John to a free-wheeling daughter and a surrogate son who will do anything to preserve the ranch. This is on display during Beth’s most harrowing scene, where she fends off two attackers with a letter opener and a fierce barrage of punishing insults aimed at men trying weaponize intimidation. She wears the bruises of this beating for nearly half the show’s runtime, refusing to don make-up and hide the reality of her experience.

Thinking about Beth and her stinging, singular resilience, her capacity for both hatred and love, I was drawn to a specific quote by another old wrangler named Lloyd who’s philosophy on toughness seems to apply nicely: “You’re either born a willow, or you’re born an oak.” Despite what she may think, Beth Dutton was an oak from the very beginning, and that toughness helped her not only navigate an unkind, unfair world of men, but rule it with an iron fist.

Yellowstone can be streamed on Peacock.

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