Like jazz and country music, the western film is a truly American invention. It’s been reconfigured and reimagined elsewhere (check out our fascinating stories on Roast Beef Westerns and Meat Pie Westerns for a whole host of examples), but the genre is indelibly tied to the nation of its birth. And more than any cinematic genre, its death is regularly and prematurely announced, with the western decried as dated, old-hat, and well and truly done. But again and again, films and TV shows (from Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning Unforgiven to the hugely successful Deadwood and Hell On Wheels on the small screen) have proven that this is a genre that will continue to stand tall and ride on, most likely for cinematic eternity.
Currently flying the flag for the genre is actor, writer, producer, director and expert horseman, Taylor Sheridan, who has reconfigured the western for modern audiences with a clutch of movies and, even more prominently, his TV series Yellowstone and its prequel 1883. And while his shows are popular, and he has received awards and nominations for his movies, Sheridan deserves a little more credit for his current importance to the great American art form that is the western.
No Johnny-come-lately, Sheridan – a ranch owner and highly skilled horseman himself – has the blood of the American west running through his veins. He grew up on a ranch in Cranfills Gap, Texas, where his family lived a minimalist lifestyle. When they lost their property, Sheridan moved around and eventually shifted to New York and Los Angeles, where he began a career as an actor. A series of bit roles on episodic TV led to a recurring spot on the cult favourite Veronica Mars before Sheridan scored his biggest role to date on the hard-edged phenomenon Sons Of Anarchy, where he played complex cop Deputy Chief David Hale.
Headstrong and self-determined, Sheridan was ignominiously written out of the show when he demanded higher pay in line with the other actors on the series. After being bounced from the show, Sheridan almost fell backwards into his first on-screen credit as a director. Though the 2011 low budget horror flick Vile has his name on it, Sheridan has long down-played his involvement. “A friend of mine raised 20 grand or something, and cast his buddies, and wrote this bad horror movie, that I told him not to direct,” Sheridan has explained. “He was going to direct it and produce it, and he started and freaked out, and called and said, ‘Can you help me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll try.’ I kind of kept the ship pointed straight, and they went off and edited, and did what they did. It’s generous to call me the director. I think he was trying to say thank you, in some way. It was an excellent opportunity to point a camera and learn some lessons.”
Vile runs counter to everything that Sheridan has done creatively since, and he refuses to call it his debut as a filmmaker. After considering leaving the entertainment industry to work full-time as a rancher and wrangler, Sheridan instead eventually made his mark in the film industry as a writer, penning (on spec, no less, with no studio backing or deals in place) the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, which was directed by master stylist Denis Villeneuve (Dune), who made gritty, extraordinary poetry out of the material. Steely, uncompromising and highly confrontational, the film stars Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent caught up in a war with Mexican drug cartels. The screenplay showcased Sheridan as a writer adept at characterisation and formal experimentation, and also one unwilling to spoon-feed an audience.
Sicario was a highly intelligent piece of work (Sheridan also penned the script for the excellent, under-praised 2018 sequel Sicario: Day Of The Soldado), and Sheridan topped it with his next script. The first real neo-western of his career, 2016’s Hell Or High Water (brilliantly directed by Brit David Mackenzie) follows brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who go on a bank robbery spree to raise funds to save their family ranch. A striking paean to the changing face of America and the enormous changes wrought on its ranching culture, the script for Hell Or High Water (interpreted so well by Mackenzie, one of many non-American directors to cast a truly cutting cinematic eye on the nation) is charged with emotion and intellect, and received four well deserved Oscar nominations, including one for Sheridan as writer.
In 2017, Sheridan made his true directorial debut with Wind River, the story of a veteran tracker (Jeremy Renner) and a young FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigating the death of a young girl on a Wyoming Indian reservation. As well as being a rock-solid, poetic thriller, the film also digs deep into the issue of America’s treatment of its native people. Though the script initially went out to others, Sheridan eventually realised that he needed to direct the films himself. “All three of those scripts…I mean, they’re all personal,” Sheridan told Rolling Stone. “But when other directors started poking around for Wind River, I found myself getting protective of it. I wanted the vision executed exactly as I saw it in my head. There was a lot in this story, that in the wrong hands, could come off as offensive. I didn’t know if I could make a good movie, but I knew I could make a respectful one.”
If his work as a screenwriter had strongly suggested the type of storyteller that Taylor Sheridan was, Wind River stated it in no uncertain terms. The film’s dark, foreboding tone, stunning depiction of the environment, and sensitivity and understanding with regards to Native Americans served as the perfect precursor to Sheridan’s extraordinary achievement with his TV series Yellowstone, which made its debut in 2018. Though co-created with John Linson (Sons Of Anarchy, The Outsider), the show is very much Sheridan’s, who writes or co-writes every episode, and has directed many episodes himself.
The sprawling, utterly absorbing story of the political manoeuvring and occasional criminal practices that go into owning and operating a cattle ranch in Montana, Yellowstone is nothing short of The Sopranos on the range, boasting career-best work from Kevin Costner as the ranch’s hard-punching patriarch, and a gallery of brilliant characters and superb performances. Yellowstone is a classic neo-western in every sense of the term, and is wholly cinematic in its tone and striking visuals. And while critics and awards bodies might fall over themselves to praise and reward shows like Succession, Yellowstone is a huge, largely unsung hit, drawing millions of viewers per episode.
“I write 10-hour movies and go shoot them,” Sheridan told Deadline of his approach to Yellowstone’s four (so far) seasons. “I’ve been working with the same crew since Wind River, and we have such a shorthand. It’s still challenging, because everything I shoot takes place outside for the most part and we’re beholden to the weather and have to force our way through. But at the end of the day, to go to some of these locations where most people have never been, where you’re opening up a new world, and all of these places or characters in the story, to me, it’s fascinating.”
Sheridan continued his fascination with the harshness and beauty of the natural environment with his 2021 feature, Those Who Wish Me Dead. Though initially engaged solely to rewrite an existing script, Sheridan found himself further drawn to the project, and became enamoured with the idea of getting Angelina Jolie to play the title role of a wilderness and survival expert who must protect a young murder witness from ruthless assassins while a wild fire rages around them. When another filmmaker dropped out of the project, Sheridan jumped at the chance, and contacted the studio with an offer. “I said, ‘If I can get Angie to do this with me, I’ll direct it for you,’” Sheridan has said of the film. “They said, ‘Great. You’ll never get Angie’.” Sheridan indeed got Angelina Jolie, and though Those Who Wish Me Dead is not as dense or complex as Sheridan’s other works, it’s a highly entertaining thriller dotted with moments of genuine, heartfelt emotion.
Sheridan’s fascination with dark, difficult stories has continued with the TV series Mayor Of Kingstown (which he co-created with Yellowstone supporting player Hugh Dillon), starring his Wind River lead Jeremy Renner, along with Dianne Wiest and Kyle Chandler. A complex family-based drama set in and around Michigan’s prison system, Mayor Of Kingstown is well and truly in line with Sheridan’s past themes and storytelling concerns. Even more in Sheridan’s wheelhouse is 1883, the prequel series to Yellowstone, which follows the trials and travails of Kevin Costner’s character’s ancestors in The Old West. “While there are certainly romantic and poetic elements to this story, I’m trying real hard to show people what it was like,” Sheridan told The New York Times of his approach to 1883. “It was at times incredibly ugly and dangerous and harsh.”
The current lead-hand on the western genre, Taylor Sheridan is aware of the mix of classicism and chaos that defines his work. “When I write a screenplay, I try to write a book,” he told The New York Times. “When I shoot a TV show, I try to shoot a movie. I’m drawn to the sparseness of the West because that’s where I’ve spent most of my life. I lived in New York for a while. I enjoyed my time there, but I would be an outsider writing about it. I like being outdoors. I really like using the camera as a paintbrush, and I just find it’s so rare that you get to see the vastness of this nation. For the time being, that’s what fascinates me the most.”
To watch Wind River, click here. Click through for more on Those Who Wish Me Dead and Wind River. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.