It only took two films for Taylor Sheridan to become one of the very few name-brand mainstream American screenwriters. Sheridan, who eked out a living acting in various small roles on TV shows like CSI: NY and Party of Five (who could forget his turn as “Counterguy”?), is now the Bard of Low- to Mid-Budget Action Sleeper Hits. His first film, 2015’s Sicario, which cost around $30 million to make and grossed almost three times that, follows an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) as she is tasked to an interagency task force taking on Mexican drug cartels that soon begins breaking the law with impunity. Next up was Hell or High Water, which Sheridan actually wrote first (it made the Black List in 2012), and features Ben Foster and Chris Pine as down-on-their-luck brothers who take to robbing the bank that stole their family ranch through a perfidious reverse mortgage.
Hell or High Water, which begins with a shot of graffiti that reads, “Three tours in Iraq, but no bailout for people like us,” had the good luck to arrive in theaters in August of 2016. The film, like Hillbilly Elegy, the surprise hit book of the summer, fed our nation’s insatiable hunger for Memos From Trump Country. That heavily mythologized land, and its stories—the stories of working class and impoverished people in places like Arizona, Texas, Montana, and the militarized border with Mexico—is Sheridan’s milieu. The characters in the film had all been sold out, and the people who did the selling were distant phantoms, invisible and unaccountable, Democrats and Republicans alike.
As with all of Sheridan’s films, Hell or High Water came suffused with a persistent sense of clench-jawed grief, even in its most enjoyable moments. In all four of his films, the protagonists are motivated in part by the death of a family member. The grief for the departed then becomes a metaphor for grief over a way of life that died as we entered the 21st century. His movies have politics that are difficult to map. Hell or High Water is not exactly right-wing (the ultimate enemy is corporate America) nor left (the crime wave is stopped with a heavy assist from the Second Amendment). Sicario has no sympathy for drug cartels, but also portrays the United States as encouraging a vicious cycle of violence that traps and destroys innocent people and erodes the rule of law.
One consistent aspect of his films, however, is that they are about men doing manly-man things, with other men, if they can manage it. In Sheridan’s America, men are the repositories of all knowledge and power. They alone have agency, and his plots are driven by their attempts to impose their will on the world around them. This is true even when his protagonists are female, as in both Sicario and last year’s Wind River (which Sheridan directed), films that feel written in petulant reaction to having women at their center. Emily Blunt spends much of Sicario watching CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and mysterious assassin Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), silently attempting to figure out what they’re up to. Her lack of agency in the film is in some ways the point: She is Sicario’s lawful good character, and her sidelining is proof that, as Alejandro says later, we are in a time of wolves. Less forgivable, however, is Wind River. In it, Elizabeth Olsen plays another female FBI agent, this time partnering with a game tracker played by Jeremy Renner to solve the brutal rape and murder of a Native American teenager. Yet what Olsen actually spends the film doing is wandering around telling Renner that she has no idea how to solve a crime. Her dialogue is one step away from that pull-string Malibu Stacy doll on The Simpsons that goes “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!”
Sheridan is clearly influenced by Michael Mann, and Wind River is the kind of film people who hate Michael Mann think Michael Mann makes. It’s all about a rugged Superman alternating between posing for the camera and mansplaining the filmmaker’s worldview to everyone around him, punctuated with the occasional shootout. While Wind River is impossible to recommend, it does have one extended sequence that is incredible: a flashback to the crime itself. What begins as a sweet moment between two lovers slowly escalates as they are caught by one of the lovers’ friends, the tension rising to a simmer, and then a full boil, until violence breaks out. It’s a mini-masterpiece of managing bodies in a tight space and using clean, deadpan cinematography to heighten our fear of what is to come.
All of his films have at least one moment like this. The odd thing about Sheridan is that you can’t fully dismiss his work, even at its most risible (and it is frequently risible) because there’s always something interesting going on. Sometimes it’s the incoherence of his politics, sometimes the sense of place and the specificity of the characters, or the way he approaches the tropes of whatever genre he’s exploring. For Hell or High Water, it’s the way the film eventually uses your affection for the brothers against you, but then kinda-sorta wants to get you back on their side. In Sicario, the lack of exposition and all-cylinders-ablaze work from everyone working on the film, traps you in an environment of persistent, never-ending dread. I first caught Sicario on an airplane, and yet found myself totally entranced by Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the late Jóhan Jóhansson’s hypnotic score. Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro take ciphers and turn them into full people, and director Denis Villeneuve helps compensate for the script’s weaknesses by constantly aiming his camera at Blunt thinking and searching for answers.
Yet I re-watched the film last weekend and cannot remember a single line from it. Sheridan may be a name-brand screenwriter, but his dialogue lacks a distinctive style, an oddity if you consider other members of that club. Aaron Sorkin has his screwball David Mamet patter, Joss Whedon his wiseacre teams of lovable rapscallions, Diablo Cody her antic cleverness disguising roiling anguish, and so on. Sheridan has a milieu, and an approach, but aside from the occasional howler like one character telling another “in case you don’t already know, there’s no such thing as heaven” before shooting him in the face, his actual sentences are nondescript. Their most distinctive feature is their loud broadcasting of the seriousness of their own purpose. This seriousness is the key to why his projects always attract a level of talent that buoys them, while always redirecting the credit for their artistic success back to his writing.
A similar phenomenon occurred with the writer Nic Pizzolatto after Cary Fukunaga’s directorial acumen focused the rather haphazard and misogynist first season of True Detective into something eerie and seemingly packed with layers of meaning. Sheridan is, in many ways, following in Pizzolatto’s footsteps: bringing to life a rural white milieu, moving into more creative control over his projects, and receiving a glowing magazine profile right before the sequel to the work that established his reputation comes out. Pizzolatto is, of course, a bit of a cautionary tale. True Detective’s second season became a cultural punchline well before audiences heard dialogue like, “You ain’t that thing no more. What you used to was.”
Sicario: Day of the Soldado, written by Sheridan and directed by the talented Stefano Sollima, is the True Detective Season 2 of movies: a nearly shapeless, at times incomprehensibly plotted film that feels shot from a first draft. Once again we’re with Matt and Alejandro, as they once again try to provoke the Reyes cartel (responsible for murdering Alejandro’s family many moons ago) into going to war with another cartel, so that the United States can take advantage of the chaos. Once again, it all goes to pieces in unpredictable ways.
But Soldado also shares with Hell or High Water some rather good luck, release-schedule wise. We are in the midst of a border crisis, and the film is about migrant-smuggling across our southern border. As in Sheridan’s other films, Soldado tries to have it both ways with a hot-button issue. At first, it’s a piece of reactionary Trumpian propaganda so obscene and exploitative that I believe the ghost of Leni Riefenstahl visited the press screening I attended to take notes. It begins with title cards announcing that thousands of migrants are smuggled across the border each year and that cartels control it, only to cut to a group of migrants being rounded up by Border Patrol. Turns out, one of them is a suicide bomber. After he blows himself up, leaving behind only prayer rugs, we cut to a grocery store in middle America where a group of suicide bombers detonate themselves, the last one waiting until a crying white mother and beatific blonde daughter are right next to him before pushing the button. The president adds the cartels to the list of terrorist organizations, allowing Matt and Alejandro to do whatever they want to take them down.
Yet in the second half of the film there’s an attempt to walk this all back. The terrorists in the supermarket turn out to be from New Jersey. Brolin bungles the operation in Mexico, and his unit gets shut down. Both he and Alejandro defy the United States government when they’re ordered to murder a child—an odd turn of events given Alejandro’s blithe child-killing in the first film. But none of this is strong enough to counter what’s come before. A few lines of dialogue are nothing when placed against a white mother and her child blown to smithereens by a man mumbling in Arabic.
Despite Sheridan’s insistence in the recent Esquire profile that he meant Soldado to be a stand-alone film, it is also very much a sequel, which means it must contain affectionate fan service about its main characters and glancing references to the original. Matt still smirks and chews gum. There’s a visual joke about his wearing Crocs instead of flip-flops (oh that Matt and his lovably bad footwear!), and another about the large water bottles used in waterboarding prisoners (oh that Matt and his love of torture!). Brolin and Del Toro, both gnomic and loathsome in the first film, now regard each other with a kind of bromantic charm, like Poe and Finn if Poe and Finn were war criminals. It’s an off-putting tonal shift that makes all of the film’s attempts at complexity look like incoherence. What kind of person, after all, could possibly want to spend more time with Matt and Alejandro after the events of the first film?
One reason Soldado may feel dashed off is that Sheridan’s clear passion project for this year was writing and directing Yellowstone, a 10-episode Western starring Kevin Costner, currently airing on the Paramount Network. Yellowstone concerns the Dutton clan, who control a patch of land on Montana roughly the size of Rhode Island and fight with means both legal and not to keep anyone else from messing with it. The series has a kind of complexity missing from Sheridan’s other recent work. It is both fueled by nostalgia for the West and is suspicious of it at the same time. Costner’s John Dutton, is explicitly described as a representative of the old ways of doing business, but those ways include branding people and conscripting them into slave labor, exercising an unquestioned patriarchal authority, and routinely breaking the law. Montana’s lack of land-use regulations—or really, one suspects, much in the way of regulations at all—is both the cause of the Dutton family’s success and their Achilles heel. Much of the show also takes place on a reservation, featuring multiple Native American characters and actors, and the show takes their grievances against the United States seriously. Its most compelling character is Thomas Rainwater (played by Hell of High Water and Wind River’s Gil Birmingham), the newly installed chief on the reservation who wants to use the forces of capitalism to defeat his people’s ancient enemy.
Yellowstone is solid TV. It won’t replace Deadwood in anyone’s list of great Western shows, but as dynastic sagas go, it’s an interesting one. It has some unfortunate and clichéd dialogue, of course, but it also has enough minutes to fill that the interesting parts of Sheridan’s writing—the parts that are so often relegated to grace notes—get a little more room to breathe. Although Sheridan says in the Esquire profile that, “I told the producers they didn’t want me to direct it because it was all going to be long shots—not that handheld stuff,” there’s little ground being broken by its camerawork or form. It’s hard to make the case that television dislikes lengthy takes, and steady, thoughtful camerawork in a world that includes Better Call Saul, The Americans, Mad Men, or any of David Simon’s shows. But this distance between what Sheridan claims for his work and what the work itself is doing is really the most consistent hallmark of his writing. His critics are wrong to completely dismiss him. There’s always a there there. It just isn’t quite as there as he thinks.