There have been few career turnarounds and rapid-fire ascendancies in Hollywood as impressive as Taylor Sheridan’s. A working actor for the last 20 years, he subsisted on bit parts almost exclusively (he had a recurring role on the FX biker series Sons of Anarchy, which ended in 2014). He was, by his own account, ready to pack things up and return to his home state of Wyoming to work full-time as a horse wrangler when he had the bright idea to try his hand at screenwriting.
What happened next is every would-be Paddy Chayefsky’s dream come true: he wrote three scripts back-to-back in six months, sold each of them in short order, and saw them produced in three consecutive years.
What’s more, the first two films made from those scripts — the drug-war thriller Sicario (2015) and the hillbilly elegy/bank robber drama Hell or High Water (2016) — weren’t small-scale adaptations, but prestige pictures that attracted big names both in front of and behind the camera: Jeff Bridges, Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine; Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. As if their pedigrees weren’t impressive enough, both films were sleeper hits and critical darlings, with Hell or High Water going on to earn Sheridan an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The last script of that trifecta, Wind River — a police procedural and murder mystery set in a frozen and forgotten Indian reservation in Wyoming — was the most personal for Sheridan, so it seems right that he got to direct it himself. The film, which won Sheridan the Un Certain Regard for Best Director at Cannes, is out on DVD and Blu-ray this week after a theatrical run in which it tripled its budget. With it, Sheridan has proven himself an exceptional craftsman, his keen direction bringing to mind the work of Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow, and he’s solidified himself as one of the most exciting new directors currently working in America.
(However, to cut this Cinderella story a little short: it should be noted that, despite the narrative that Sheridan has been pushing while doing the rounds for Wind River, it is not his directorial debut. That would be 2009’s Vile, a low-budget horror film of the “torture-porn” variety, which he seems to want to keep hidden, for obvious reasons.)
Taken together, Sheridan’s scripts represent more than just an inspirational success story; they also comprise a thematic trilogy that serves as an elegy for the lost ideal of American peace and prosperity. All three films explore the intersection of violence and retribution taken up against systems of economic oppression — the Cartels, if you will, be they cartels for Mexican narcotics operations, private security firms, or faceless banks and giant corporations.
In many ways, these stories are reminiscent of the wave of political thrillers — Syriana, Rendition, Lions for Lambs — that came out during the last Bush administration, and which sought to hold up a mirror of moral ambiguity to the War On Terror. But unlike those films, which usually took a sprawling, almost Altman-esque look at the tensions and collisions of power an increasingly post-national world, Sheridan keeps his focus on communities within or adjacent to rural America, where the larger battles have already been fought and the devastation — here exemplified not by rubble and soot, but by boarded-up windows on houses and foreclosure signs on front lawns — has already occurred.
From the violent standoffs between ranchers and Feds, cartels and clandestine intelligence agencies, giant energy companies and First Nations peoples, Sheridan is innately aware of, and sympathetic to, the wars that are being waged outside of the country’s big cities.
Sheridan’s films distinguish themselves from those earlier films in another important way: they manage to be entertaining, rather than just pedantic. Whereas most of the political thrillers and dramas of the 2000s were dour, scolding, and treacly, his have been fast-paced, action-packed, and often darkly transgressive. He’s been able to achieve this by looking to the example of the Western, adopting its iconography so as to give his stories a sense of the mythic.
Sheridan said as much in the same Rolling Stone article where he talks about his surprising career trajectory, though he by no means tries to bury his scripts’ socio-political concerns (though he does attempt to have his cake and eat it too by stressing that while his most recent film goes out of its way to be respectful of the culture it presents — that of the First Nation peoples — it’s not doing so in a “Social Justice Warrior-y kind of way”). He is very open about wanting to use heightened drama and genre trappings to shatter stereotypes and upend clichés…
…which is where his promise suddenly hits a wall. While the films made from his scripts are definitely a cut above the standard mid-budget, prestige drama fare that studios tend to put out, they still tend to conform to the very stereotypes he talks about breaking.
Take, for example, how Hell or High Water misdiagnoses poverty as a disease (its central anti-hero explicitly calling it that), rather than a symptom of the disease that is modern-day capitalism. Likewise, Wind River, while not outwardly disrespectful to the community it depicts, is still a film about a (white) man exacting justice for the rape and murder of a woman (of color) in order to work through his own issues. This is not to say that Sheridan need suddenly transform himself into Jean-Luc Godard when it comes to how he chooses to explore issues of class, gender, or race, but it is to say that maybe his films are not quite as deep as he thinks they are.
These pretensions of profundity are not limited to the scripts’ political observations. Their symbolism is often painfully obvious (he likes to compare people to animals, particularly wolves), his plots can feel rushed, and, most importantly, he has a tendency to tell, rather than show. In Hell or High Water we hear a lot about how unbearable poverty is, but anytime we’re shown glimpses of the characters’ home lives there is nothing that reads as all that desperate.
In Wind River, for as much as people talk about the living hell that is life on the reservation, we only see one such case (a drug den that could belong to any town or city in America). Likewise, in the same film, characters are constantly reminding each other (and thereby the audience) that the land and its people have been forgotten by the United States government, despite the fact that the federal agent (Elizabeth Olsen) who enters the story proves intrepid and unflappably dedicated to seeing justice done, which it is in a rather quick and cohesive manner.
The message at the heart of these movies is often just as muddled. At the end of Wind River, we are treated to on-screen text that informs us that there is no federal database for women who go missing from Indian reservations, and that currently their number is unknown. Good intentions aside, this is an exceptionally confusing note to end the movie on, being that zero women go missing in the film. There are two dead women at the heart of the story, but neither is or was considered missing (no one even realizes anything has happened to the main victim until after her body is discovered), and at least one of them is given justice (or at least the idea of justice is achieved on behalf of what she represents to the male protagonist.)
When it comes to these problems with Sheridan’s scripts, Sicario is the biggest offender. This is doubly frustrating because as a finished film it also boasts the most impressive surface details out of all three, thanks to the haunting, unique direction of Denis Villeneuve, a magnetic co-lead performance from Benicio Del Toro, and — most importantly — the stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins, which ranks amongst his best. But the script overplays its hand on several occasions, most egregiously by taking a complex, labyrinthian story with its roots firmly in reality — the origins of the current narco wars can be traced directly to clandestine operations run by the CIA throughout the second half of the last century — and wrapping it up in a couple neat monologues that strain credulity.
This is not helped by the fact that the film features two of the most unbelievably stupid protagonists in recent memory (partners belonging to an FBI Hostage Response unit, played by Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya, both miscast). I mean that literally — I do not believe FBI agents could actually be as stupid as these characters, who are told on at least three occasions what the objective of their mission is, as well as the fact that it and they are not subject to previous legal strictures, and yet continually find themselves shocked when things play out exactly as they have been told they would.
There is also the case of the film’s subplot that sheds an empathetic light on some of the other people caught up in the narcotics trade, in particular a depressed Mexican cop who moonlights as a drug mule. While the idea behind this thread is interesting in theory, it constantly brings the tension of the story to a standstill, and its climax is so heavy-handed that it feels like something out of a Paul Haggis movie.
While Sheridan is currently riding high on mostly well-deserved praise, it seems inevitable that the films produced from his scripts will suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Right now, they stand out from the glut of big-budget spectacle pervading cineplexes, and seem like the welcome exceptions to the rule — a cliché at this point — about how Hollywood no longer makes movies for adults.
Still, even in their failings, Sheridan’s stories are fascinating. Overly simplistic, reliant on self-mythologizing, and often lacking in self-awareness, they are nonetheless often poetic, riveting, and even righteous in their broader outrage. Here’s hoping that in the future, Sheridan, in giving voice to his innate and earnest anger, can uncover a truth that breaks the skin and truly pierces the heart of modern-day America. If he can do that, he’s likely to deliver the dark and masterful elegy that our fallen national ideal truly deserves.
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, city of broken dreams.