Taylor Sheridan Finds the Wolves Roaming in America

by Michael Haigis
Published: Last Updated on

Sicario ends with a threatening proclamation: “You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” The phrase is pure menace couched in profundity, delivered by an imposing killer to a shaken FBI agent. It also neatly sums up the overarching ethos of Taylor Sheridan’s films, from Sicario and Hell or High Water, which Sheridan penned, to Wind River, which he wrote and directed. The man is Hollywood’s foremost chronicler of wolves.

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen obsess over the cold in Wind River, only occasionally focusing on the animal predators that populate the film’s wooded landscape. Cody (Renner), a Wyoming game warden, and Jane (Olsen), a green FBI agent, wonder how cold it get and for how long. They guess at how long one could survive such cold, work through how exactly one would die from it; would they fall asleep and never wake up? Or would they drown in their own blood after the cold exploded their lungs? (Somehow, we’re told it’s the latter).

That Jane is surprised to find her knit sweater a bit light for Wyoming’s perilous climate is the sole confounding element of Wind River, a film that captures the same potent mixture of human cruelty and natural beauty found in Sheridan’s other films. The atmosphere is unsettling. Violence is revolting. True natures are obscured by inscrutable masks, and so on. The film upholds the legacy of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but with its heightened focus on environmental danger, Wind River amplifies those films’ suffocating sense of frontier peril, and like them, uncovers gaps in America that exist beyond demarcated civilization. For Sheridan, America’s harshest environments don’t reject men; they reduce them to animals, and subjugate them to Darwin’s natural law.

In its tensest moments, Sicario seems to actually turn up our thermostats. A bridge standoff takes place among hundreds of gridlocked cars, each regurgitating exhaust into onto sizzling asphalt. An early raid finds cops and Narcos wading through thick desert heat toward a harrowing result. Blinding sunlight does yield, only to leave a dark warmth that leaves characters beading sweat long after the sun sets. Throughout, Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins assess the region’s expanse, blurring the Mexican-American border and framing the drug war’s staging ground as one urban sprawl. The arbitrary line that bisects it is a petri dish for cataclysmic violence to breed — just add heat.

As director, Sheridan follows suit. The sub-zero temperature in Wind River is nearly a character itself. It permeates the narrative and every shot of the film. It bleeds into the theater. It informs every design choice Sheridan makes. Cold looms over the Wind River reservation, which — like the strip between Juarez and El Paso — is framed as an effectively lawless bubble. Where Villeneuve saw a smoldering powder keg in the latter, Sheridan envisions a no-man’s land, with order enforced primarily by the wind chill. In either case, external circumstances transform inhabitants into either predator or prey.

Circling back to Jane’s naiveté, there is more than a hint of condescension to women in all of Sheridan’s screenplays. They tend to use female characters as passive audience surrogates (Sicario), or sideline them while desperate men wage war (Hell or High Water). All three films swagger with masculinity, but the gear porn and brutality of Sheridan’s work suggests a cowboy conservatism that actually obscures his persisting endorsement of institutional oversight. As a writer, Sheridan seems uninterested in the “good guy with a gun” archetype — search for conventional heroes in his work, and you’ll largely be stifled. He is more taken with victims and the inherent evil of men, which is why these stories take place in environments uniquely suited to unleash cruelty.

In many ways, Sheridan writes modern westerns, with personal beefs playing out against breathtaking landscapes, but they lack of the genre’s romantic view of cowboys and frontier justice, instead sounding an alarm for those left uncovered by the protective blanket of civilization. Wind River thrills while Cody and Jane are exacting extralegal justice against a vicious killer, but manages to withhold catharsis after their revenge is served (literally cold, for what it’s worth). The pair aren’t purified or enriched by their victory. In fact, they appear to only have their worst fear confirmed: in a place like Wind River, survival is the best you can hope for.

Olsen’s wide-eyed FBI is a retread of Emily Blunt’s role in Sicario, two female protagonists who exist mainly to witness the trials of men. Jane assists Cody as he hunts the film’s unseen killer, attempting in a way to avenge his own daughter, who died in similar unsolved murder. We expect Cody to purge his guilt and trauma in the process, but his ultimate victory is perfunctory and hollow. The scene in which Cody allows his target to crawl, wounded, through the snow for as long as he can (hint: not long) is tonally similar to the climax of Sicario, in which Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) brutally murders the Cartel jefe who killed his own family. Both killings are undertaken with little fanfare, and even less emotional release. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Jane are sidelined, powerless to intercede.

At the heart of all three scripts there is a gnawing fear that fathers in society’s margins can protect their kin only insofar as they can avenge them once the wolves have come. He views the paradigm of frontier justice through a victim’s eyes. Even in Hell or High Water, which features Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as Sheridan’s most morally gray protagonists, the brothers see bank robbery as the sole viable way to provide for their lot. Left behind by America’s economy, foreclosure poses the same threat to the Howards as murder — their family’s ultimate annihilation.

Moral decay thrives in chaos and jurisdictional ambiguity in Sicario, whereas the West Texas and Wyoming cops in Hell or High Water and Wind River face more geographic limitations than bureaucratic — there simply aren’t enough of cops to cover the land. Tracking the Howard brothers across a dusty expanse in Hell or High Water, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) depends on best guesses and more than a little luck. When Jane arrives in Wyoming, she finds cops who hardly bother entertaining the idea of ever catching the film’s killer, thinly spread as they are.

Both films revolve around crimes of opportunity, committed by predators who knowingly exploit a lack of oversight, and while Wind River behaves like an uncomplicated thriller about good men acting in lieu of the law, somber text at the film’s end illuminates  Sheridan’s true focus. Cody, who in a different film might be a crusading do-gooder, restores nothing at the end of Wind River. In the film’s last frame, Sheridan reminds us that women are still disappearing. He upends the trope of frontier opportunity, and makes a trenchant argument for law and order.

Wind River is punctuated with the unflinching explanation of its central mystery, when a flashback reveals the fate of Jane’s murder victim, and likely Cody’s daughter before her. Two Native American teens are raped and murdered by a group of refinery workers who — both driven mad and freed by isolation — are transformed into pack hunters. To what degree each man has always been cruel is never elucidated, but their complicity in the crimes, the willingness of even the group’s spectators to remain silent in the face of heinous acts, is attributed in the film to their isolation. Far from society, they ably delude themselves into wondering whether a crime even occurred if no one was around to hear their victims scream.

Sheridan’s eye for institutional dysfunction recalls the sensibility of David Simon, who with The Wire, The Corner and The Deuce outlines the systemic decay at the heart of American cities. Sheridan simply fixes his focus on America’s opposite pole, where those institutions don’t exist. The two complement one another in a bleak argument about the nature of humans who live in anything more than literal isolation. Even the ostensibly benevolent lawmen in Sheridan’s films are poisoned by their environment.

Sicario asks us to assess Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to evaluate his righteousness. Graver, the CIA agent, brazenly flouts the law to reestablish Colombian control of the drug trade, hoping that one central power will stabilize the region and quell the violence along the Mexican border. His gambit mirrors America’s history of interventionism and regime change, but Sheridan presents it without comment, never answering the question of Graver’s moral authority. He is as much a product of circumstance as Kate, his reticent FBI liaison, and despite Graver’s cavalier attitude, he appears to believe his actions are in America’s best interest. He is simply forced closer to a gray morality by the border’s ambiguity, and subsequently empowered by his remove from societal regulation.

Graver, The Howards, Cody, and Marcus are vestiges of the white-hat heroism in America’s romantic cultural memory of the old west, a memory informed by its cinematic representation as a land of possibility. But these men aren’t moral heroes or arbiters of justice. They are damaged, corrupted, hollow, or some mixture of all three — even Marcus, who is driven not by a sense of moral purity, but by his impending irrelevance. At the conclusion of Wind River, we realize that Cody is far more likely to continue staggering through life than find peace, and Sicario ends with Graver trapped in a toxic cycle of violence with no clear solution. His only consolation is a seat atop the ladder of chaos — one each man seeks as they grasp for control in their own lawless environments.

Sheridan counts on our historical knowledge of the real frontier as a cruel and harsh landscape, which stole life from inhabitants in myriad ways, to make his most unsettling argument: that some version of the west is alive and well in the overlooked cracks of America. Sheridan is less interested in the economic imperatives of his characters than the is their moral imperatives, in locations where the rule of civility has been lost and the economy is either bust or corrupt to the core. These are not simply dispatches from working class America, nor are they snapshots of struggling, silent minorities. His films argue that before people can be raised up, they must first be prevented from destruction, and that pockets remain in a first world country where that is no guarantee.

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