Right now, Taylor Sheridan is riding high. The Texan writer-director has no less than three current, successful TV series in the States - neo-Western Yellowstone which stars Kevin Costner, its historical prequel 1883, and the crime drama Mayor of Kingstown. These have all been critical and ratings hits, particularly Yellowstone which is now five seasons in. Sadly, few people have heard of these shows in the UK, let alone seen them, due to Paramount’s absurd but apparently lucrative licensing strategy which has kept them off British screens.
While Sheridan is currently building a TV empire at a breakneck pace, his success is rooted in his writing for film. He made his name as the writer of Sicario (2015), the superbly tense Mexican drug war thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve. For David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water (2016), he received a slew of award nominations, including for the Academy, BAFTA, and Golden Globe Awards for Best Original Screenplay. His subsequent films Wind River (2017), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) and Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021) have all reinforced his personal slate of tough, terse movies about life or death situations on “the modern American frontier”.
In a few short years, Sheridan has been transformed from a bit-part actor on Sons of Anarchy into a major power player. Today’s screenwriters are almost anonymous, but Sheridan has some of the same name recognition and kudos once reserved for guys like Shane Black. He’s achieved all of this while bucking trends - in a far cry from the ceaseless deluge of superhero sequels we’ve been in for fifteen years, his movies are unambiguously written for grown-ups. Each of his five best films have been a key step in that transformation, which is why it’s worth recommending them each in turn.
Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve
As a screenwriter, Sheridan seemed to come completely out of nowhere. Sicario quickly became one of the most praised films of 2015, and yet it was Sheridan’s first script to be shot. This brilliant thriller rooted in the vicious Mexican drug war establishes a number of what would become the writer’s favourite themes. Strong female characters, beautiful but hostile frontier locations, and the moral compromises of law enforcement would all recur in his later projects. The film also has a lot of Sheridan’s key stylistic features, like sparse dialogue and a relatively straightforward plot.
The film focuses on Kate Macer, a tough but somewhat naive FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. She is drawn into a morally dubious covert operation targeted at Mexican drug cartels and led by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shadowy consultant Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). The combination of Villeneuve’s superb direction and Sheridan’s script is a potent one which delivers some superbly tense scenes, especially a very memorable and deadly border crossing. In places, the film is reminiscent of the work of Walter Hill, a kind of predecessor to Sheridan whose film Extreme Prejudice (1987) covered some similar ground. There’s a good chance that in time, Sicario will be looked back on as one of the most important movies of its decade, and Sheridan’s script is a significant part of that.
Hell or High Water (2016), directed by David Mackenzie
Originally written under the title Comancheria, Sheridan’s second film was eventually shot and released as Hell or High Water. The Scottish director David Mackenzie and a fantastic cast did a tremendous job in bringing this neo-Western story to life. The film was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture and was shown in competition at Cannes. This time, Sheridan took as much of the acclaim as the director, and his star was very clearly on the rise.
While Sicario was set in Arizona and Mexico, Hell or High Water focuses mainly on Sheridan’s home state of Texas, with brief excursions into nearby Oklahoma. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers who wage a campaign of bank robberies against Texas Midland Bank, which is threatening to seize their family’s land. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham are equally good as the mismatched Texas Rangers hunting the brothers down. There is so much going on in Hell or High Water. It is about the cruelty of faceless financial institutions and the pitiless environment of the American South. It is also about being on the “edge” of American society; geographically, economically, and culturally. The film looks beautiful, and Sheridan’s writing is superb: harsh, spare, and sometimes funny. The Rangers’ encounter with a crotchety old waitress is a scene for the ages.
Wind River (2017), directed by Taylor Sheridan
Sheridan parlayed his huge success with Hell or High Water into a deal to direct his own feature for the first time. Wind River is an auspicious debut for Sheridan the director which serves as another powerful showcase for his favourite themes. The film is set in the harsh, frozen Wind River Indian Reservation in west-central Wyoming and opens with the brutal murder of a young woman. The writer-director’s second naive FBI agent is played by Elizabeth Olsen; she is sent to investigate the killing, but is woefully underprepared and leans on a Fish and Wildlife Service agent played by Jeremy Renner.
The film is superbly tense and features a couple of superb shootouts, but crucially it has a strongly humane streak. Wind River shines a light on the appalling phenomenon of violence against Native American women, and also serves as a meditation on grief - it is not only the family of Natalie Hanson who have lost someone. Strikingly, the film is now seen as the third entry in Sheridan’s “frontier trilogy” which is that rare thing; a trilogy anchored not by association with a director, but with a writer. While Wind River received less awards buzz than Sheridan’s previous film, it did win him a directing prize at Cannes.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), directed by Stefano Sollima
Movies that get the kind of critical acclaim received by Sicario very rarely get sequels, but Sheridan paid no notice to that tradition. Apparently without any studio input, he wrote a follow-up of his own volition and it was eventually made by the Italian director Stefano Sollima. While Sollima had never before worked in English, he was otherwise an ideal successor to Denis Villeneuve because his film Suburra (2015) and the TV series Gomorrah cover similar ground to Sheridan’s work.
The sequel struggled to generate the attention it deserved, which arguably had a lot to do with the deep confusion of its title - at different times it was known as Soldado, Sicario 2, and Day of the Soldado which resulted in some scattershot marketing. Critics were also much less interested in a film which wasn’t helmed by Villeneuve. In the sequel, Graver and Gillick return with orders to deliberate inflame cartel conflict in Mexico. Benecio del Toro’s Gillick, long since transformed from lawyer to cold assassin by his experiences, seemingly begins to recover some semblance of his former humanity. This leads to a schism with his CIA handlers and some more beautifully tense exchanges. Soldado is another excellent and undervalued thriller with a lot to say about how the US-Mexico border defines and destroys lives.
Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021), directed by Taylor Sheridan
This is Sheridan’s “pandemic movie”, if only in the sense that it came out under the shadow of COVID-19, and like most films in that position, failed to generate much interest or make any money. While it isn’t his best work, Those Who Wish Me Dead is still a thoroughly entertaining thriller which confirms Sheridan’s abilities as a director. In a number of ways it feels like a thriller from the ‘90s, which is strong praise given how anaemic most thrillers are these days. Significantly, the film is actually adapted from a novel by Michael Koryta, who co-wrote the script with Sheridan.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah Faber, a former specialist “smokejumper” firefighter demoted to being stationed on a fire tower in the Montana wilderness. She encounters a young boy on the run from a pair of hitmen, played by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, who murdered his father. The killers start a forest fire in an effort to literally smoke out their prey, and Hannah and her friends must try to find a way to protect the boy. There are issues with the plot, such as the fact that the fire plays such a minor role in it. However, Jolie is excellent and child actor Finn Little is surprisingly good as well. Despite being based on someone else’s story, Those Who Wish Me Dead feels very much like a Taylor Sheridan movie and some may find that it doesn’t hit a new niche within his work. It’s definitely suspenseful, well acted and well shot - ironically, it was actually made in New Mexico because shooting Montana was considered impractical.
As it stands, Taylor Sheridan’s emphasis seems to be very much on television and some have even expressed concerns that he is overworked, running multiple shows simultaneously. Given the chance, I’d watch all of Sheridan’s current shows and more besides; but what I’d relish most is the chance to see more films written and directed by him. Hopefully Sheridan’s Paramount contract will provide opportunities for him to work on more films in the coming years. In the meantime, the least they can do is to finally launch Paramount + in the UK...
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