Yellowstone proves cowboys should cry more

Jessica Cullen
Yellowstone proves that cowboys should cry more: Luke Grimes and Sam Elliott in Yellowstone and 1883

Shortly after Horizon: An American Saga premiered at Cannes, social media was set ablaze by a certain image. It was Kevin Costner, his teary-eyed stare gazing out into the crowd as they applauded the rolling credits. They weren’t cheering for Horizon, however — they were cheering for him.

Costner’s teary visage reverberated across the timelines of anyone keeping up with the festival, as did the crowd’s chants of “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!” It was a great moment — one that many would kill to have at such events — and it signifies a shift in the Western that Costner and his Yellowstone history have helped to make.

Although Costner has now departed the Yellowstone franchise, his reign was one filled with tears. The men in Taylor Sheridan’s show aren’t afraid to weep from sadness, relief, or fear.

The sight of cowboys crying might be unexpected for those who’ve only watched the most classic Westerns, and even more so for those who only know of the genre’s manly status.

Yellowstone’s emotional men

The Western has been a paradigm of machismo since it first came to screens. Men ride horseback across the dangerous and never-ending vistas, shooting down villains without thinking, and doing it all with a stony grimace — or, if we’re lucky, the barest hint of a grin.

Yellowstone doesn’t adhere to this genre standard as much. Yes, the men folk are cool. They lasso cattle and chase down bad guys in suits, usually set to the tune of some raspy-voiced country hit on the Yellowstone soundtrack.

But they’re also allowed to be vulnerable. The women on Yellowstone cry, too, but they’re not usually granted the same narrative dignity as their masculine counterparts. It’s the men who break down, sometimes privately, sometimes in front of others.

Costner’s John Dutton — the stoic patriarch of the Dutton family — is also seen more than once having a little cry. Whether it’s on the privacy of his porch or when he’s saying goodbye to his dying father, it’s made very clear that John is a man who cries. And, more importantly, he doesn’t care if he is.

1883’s cryin’ cowboys

Of course, we’ve all known for some time that men can and should be allowed to cry. What’s so interesting about Yellowstone’s proclivity for male emotion is that it goes against the surface-level essence of the Western. This is made even more obvious when it comes to the Yellowstone spinoff 1883.

1883 focuses on the Duttons of old as they travel across the treacherous West to seek their future and fortune. They’re led by Sam Elliott’s Captain Shea, a Union Civil War veteran who leads them (and a convoy of inexperienced European immigrants) across the land.

Shea is about as hardcore as it gets. He’s hard-headed, no-nonsense, and determined to get these naive travelers to listen to him. But he’s also intensely emotional.

The spinoff’s opening scene shows Shea burning down the house in which the disease-riddled corpses of his wife and daughter lie. From then on, in what feels like every single episode of the limited series, Shea’s magnificent white mustache trembles, his thick eyebrows knit together, and he cries.

Sam Elliott as Shea in 1883

These scenes are far and away the most effective in what is, generally, an incredibly good Western show. There’s lots to love about 1883, but Shea’s vulnerability and willingness to shed a tear brings about some of the most poignant moments of the Yellowstone franchise.

And it never impacts his ability to be threatening or controlled. He’s the most emotional man there, but he’s always the biggest man around.

Weepin’ Westerns

Westerns aren’t above making audiences cry — films like Shane, True Grit, and Unforgiven have been known as “male weepies”. Tales like Brokeback Mountain almost count on audiences crying, with their backbone being an emotional one.

But still, the genre’s stereotypical reputation has been built on that getting-the-job-done, rub-some-dirt-on-it attitude. It’s unusual for many viewers to see that weepiness portrayed on-screen by some of its manliest characters. But Yellowstone (and its companion shows) do this and do it well.

We’re not only on the cusp of a potential revival for the genre, but we’re at a crossroads, too. For instance, Viggo Mortensen’s new Western, The Dead Don’t Hurt, focuses on the character of Vivienne instead, lending the story to the female perspective.

The genre is evolving. And with Kevin Costner and the Yellowstone characters bringing new levels of open emotion to the table, there’s plenty of room for tears. After all, why shouldn’t this new era of cowboys cry?

For more, take a look at our Horizon: An American Saga review, or check out how to watch every Kevin Costner Western. You can also find out more about Yellowstone Season 5 Part 2, and keep tabs on all the best movies of 2024.