Pox Americana

Taylor Sheridan on the hard truths behind his previous screenplays Sicario and Hell or High Water and his new film Wind River.


Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in Wind River.

Taylor Sheridan cut his teeth in Hollywood working as an actor. He was squeaky-clean cop Dave Hale on Sons of Anarchy, a job that he reportedly quit to spend more time dedicating himself to work behind the scenes.

Few screenwriters have had as strong a batting average as Sheridan – both of his produced screenplays (Sicario and Hell or High Water) garnered him Academy Award noms. Wind River is actually his second directorial effort (he also directed a low-budget horror film in 2011), but it’s thematically and stylistically so simpatico with his two previous screenplays that they can almost be thought of as a loose trilogy centred around criminal life in harsh rural settings.

“Well, let’s just start with Sicario,” says Sheridan. “There’s another world within this world, and it’s a world that nobody knows about. And just the other day, in a parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, they found a semi truck loaded with about 100 migrants. They found nine of them dead! Wherever they were going, they were letting them out the back of a semi and locking it back up. That was happening right under everyone’s nose — it’s a tragedy. In this kind of exploration of the modern American frontier, which is what I’m always trying to do in these three movies, I wanted to explore these areas a few miles from the areas that everyone knows.

“If you think of the Wind River Range, as the crow flies, you’re a mere 100 miles from Yellowstone National Park. You’re 60 miles as from Jackson Hole; you have one of the poorest counties in the nation next to the wealthiest. Likewise, in Hell or High Water, you have an area less than 120 miles from one of the largest urban centres in the United States — and it’s dying! It’s a way of life that’s dying. You’re seeing an America that’s changing, for better but for worse. To me, that’s fascinating. And I love landscape as a character in the piece.”

It’s nevertheless surprising how consistent the tone and style is between the three films considering all three were directed by three different people.

“A lot of screenwriters will write specifically “smash cut to this”, “fade out to this” and so on. I don’t do that. My stages directions set a tone, they set a sense of place. I think that, because of that, a director reads one of my screenplays and it’s easy for them to see the way I envisioned it. (…) The cinematographers that (directors) Denis (Villeuneuve) and David (Mackenzie) used are very different, though. There’s a very still, kind of stalking essence to the camera work in Sicario, where there’s a real energy and motion to the camerawork in Hell or High Water.”

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a tracker and hunter with U.S. Fish and Wildlife working on a remote reservation in Wyoming. Sent to investigate what seems like a routine wild animal job, Lambert instead discovers the frozen body of a young woman. It soon becomes obvious that the woman was assaulted and died escaping her assailants — that revelation brings on the arrival of unprepared big-city FBI investigator Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Banner and Lambert team up to take on the rugged wilderness and inhospitable environment.

In much the same way as Sicario took on the iron grip of the cartels and HoHW took on poverty in the South, Wind River uses the framework of a crime thriller to take on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“I think a genre film is a great tool,” says Sheridan. “Nobody wants to be preached to, and often times when you make a movie about an issue, it becomes an issue film. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do a dark study of people who have endured this kind of violence and have lost people to this kind of violence. Putting it in a crime-thriller procedural pill makes it go down a lot easier. You get to learn about this world as you learn about what happened, and it doesn’t feel like you’re preaching. And I’m not preaching — I’m just holding up a mirror to something that’s taking place. It’s as prevalent here as it is in Canada, and yet it’s not in the news every day.”

Wind River is also the first time that Sheridan directed one of his own scripts. I asked Sheridan how that experience was — moving from seeing someone else put your words into images to being the one crafting the images.

“There’s a lot of freedom that comes with it because I wrote it and directed it,” he says. “I envisioned it, and I get to pursue that vision exactly. That said, Denis and Mackenzie did phenomenal jobs, capturing what I imagined and expanding on it. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with directing something you wrote because if it doesn’t work, there’s no one to blame but you (laughs).” ■

Wind River opens in theatres on Friday, Aug. 18. Watch the trailer here: