Western Month: The Subversive Work of Taylor Sheridan

These aren't your daddy's Westerns

Nighttime, just across the Mexican border. A lone gunman approaches a family eating dinner on their patio, pistol in hand. After a short conversation with the father, the gunman opens fire, killing the man’s wife and two sons, before shortly killing the man as well. Similarly vicious scenes have played out in Westerns before, but rarely do the films choose to place such a scene at the end of the movie, and even rarer still do they have the arguable protagonist of the film commit such a horrific act. But such is the end of Sicario, the film that introduced the world to the writing of Taylor Sheridan, and his brutal modern day deconstructions of the Western genre.

You see, the Western is a tricky genre in that many of the films often find themselves glamorizing ugly to sometimes even horrific actions taken by hard men, and that’s before we even bother to get into providing a proper historical context to the proceedings. We watch thrilling tales of vigilante gun fighters, bounty hunters, and charming outlaws and bank robbers, and in the escapism of it all, we can miss the horror in it at times. That is not to say that all films in the genre fall prey to this, and it’s not to say that it is an inherently bad genre,1 but we can sometimes lose sight of the context of the moments that take place within these individual films. That’s where Taylor Sheridan comes in. A self-professed modern cowboy, Sheridan takes imagery, tropes, and archetypes from the western genre and uses the context of the modern day combined with a wider field of vision to turn these tropes on their head and examine the ugliness that can sometimes lurk within these stories.

Sheridan has talked at length in various articles about his love of subverting traditional narrative structures and turning tropes on their head. Subversion lies at the very heart of what he does as a filmmaker, and it all started with Sicario. In Sicario Sheridan set out to write a Western that offers an unflinching view at what has become a very literal war on drugs. Set primarily along the border of Arizona and Mexico, it follows an interagency task force fighting the cartels and examines the increasingly hardline actions being taken in the drug war on both sides and within posits that in fighting this war, we as Americans are turning into the very thing we are fighting. Through the eyes of a young, by-the-book FBI agent we bear witness to countless acts of increasingly questionable legality as a CIA agent and his independent contractor, Alejandro; a character later revealed to be a mercenary with a grudge against the cartels. In depicting this highly illegal, yet sanctioned, operation, and the horrifying choices they make that culminate in Alejandro’s execution of the family, Sheridan recalls the posses of old Westerns and the depictions of lawmen brutally going to war with outlaws. He posits that by fighting these wars with the methods we are using, that we may in fact be perpetuating the conditions that lead to the war in the first place, and wonders if the human cost is worth it. Sheridan treads similar ground with the sequel Sicario: Day of The Soldado, but as it is still a recent release I’ll hold off discussing it at this time.

From Sicario, Sheridan moved on to Hell or High Water, his script about two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) robbing banks to pay off the reverse mortgage the banks hold on their recently deceased mother’s home, and the Texas Rangers trying to catch them. Once again the framework of a traditional Western can be seen in the plot description. After all, the charming bank robber is a classic western trope, as are upright lawmen. The difference once again lies in the details. Sheridan as a rule isn’t interested in justifying the actions of his protagonists, but he is a huge proponent of illuminating them, because while a person’s past doesn’t excuse their actions, it can often explain them. The brothers in Hell or High Water are in many ways equal parts victim and victimizer. Victimized by immoral financial institutions and a corporate America that has devastated many a small town, they are lashing out at an uncaring world and using crime to provide a life for the people they care about. The film however never loses sight of the fact that what the brothers are doing is wrong, and refuses to allow them the benefit of a clean conscience. No, their recklessness and ambition gets people hurt, and eventually killed.

On the other side of the law we have a pair of Texas Rangers, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), trying to catch them. Through their relationship we are allowed a different angle from which to view the brothers and the chaos they are causing in West Texas. Sheridan also uses the character of Marcus to confront a specific breed of casual racism, as we witness his constant barrage of “jokes” directed at his partner’s Mexican and Native American ancestry, and the strain it seems to put on their working relationship. It is through their relationship, and Alberto specifically however, that Sheridan lays bare one of the central themes of the story: the cycle of theft and exploitation that has occurred in the American west, as land that was stolen from Native Americans by settlers, is now being stolen from the descendants of those settlers by banks and corporations. Still, even while conjuring incredibly believable circumstances as the impetus to the actions of the brothers, Sheridan never once allows us to view their robberies as victimless crimes. Repeatedly he shows us the human cost of their actions, as if to stress that no, these men are not modern day Robin Hood’s, they’re dangerous criminals justifying their actions by claiming that society gave them no other choice. And when the dust settles, the survivors on both sides are left forever changed and haunted by the events that have transpired.

Sheridan continued his trend of using his subversive modern day Westerns to comment on our national sins with his directorial debut Wind River. Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the film forces the viewer to take a long hard look at what the United States has done and is doing to Native populations, and it is a harrowing revelation. And while the film does spend plenty of time on the conditions on the reservation in general, its primary focus is on the plight of Native women. It depicts an infrastructure woefully unequipped to investigate and prosecute crimes against Native women, which when confined with the already high incidence rate of crimes against women in society at large, results in a nightmare scenario. To hammer home the issues at play Sheridan ends the film with the revelation that there are no reliable missing persons statistics for Native women, meaning that to this day, there is no way of knowing exactly how many are missing.

As always Sheridan couches his message within a Western and uses the tropes of the genre to deliver it. In this case, the film seems to borrow no small amount of inspiration from the work of Sergio Leone. After a girl is found dead on the reservation, a single FBI agent is sent in to work with Tribal Police to attempt to solve the crime, with the help of local Fish and Wildlife Tracker Cory Lambert, who found the girl’s body. After establishing an environment where the influence of law enforcement is limited, the film provides an old west staple, the lone gunmen coming to the aid of the lawman, or in this case, woman. Of course Cory Lambert is not a typical western protagonist in some senses. While not exactly a talkative fellow, Lambert is far from stoic. The film engages with a more positive brand of masculinity and allows the character to feel and express emotion in a way that many of these protagonists rarely do. And rather than leave him a mysterious cypher with an unknown past, the film instead uses Lambert’s past, and his experience of losing a daughter in a similar way, to inform his character and his decision to sign on to help the investigation. It adds up to one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory, one that excels in all phases. It is a pressure cooker of a movie that explodes in one decisive burst of violence before coming to a silent and painful conclusion.

One through line in all of Sheridan’s work, whether he directs it or not, is the emphasis on nature and the environment as almost a character of it’s own. All of Sheridan’s films are full of stunning pan shots out across hard and unforgiving landscapes. Rather than idealic pastoral landscapes, he instead fills the screen with dusty plains with only the sparsest vegetation, and in the case of Wind River a frozen sub-zero wilderness. It echoes a common theme of the genre, that of man attempting to survive in a harsh and brutal environment — one that rewards mistakes with death.

Sheridan is an astoundingly talented filmmaker with a lot to say and his sudden explosion onto the scene is something to behold. After a career as a working actor, he has reinvented himself as a screenwriter extraordinaire and a more than competent director. While I would not describe any of his films as an easy watch, they all feel essential which makes his work something that I would recommend to any serious lover of film.

  1. after all it features several of the greatest films of all time