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Sicario 2: Soldado

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2015’s Sicario was a coming together of several brilliant talents. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also delivered great scripts with Hell Or High Water and Wind River; director of photography Roger Deakins, who drew closer to his elusive Oscar; the fine acting chops of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; the ever improving director Denis Villeneuve, whose subsequent films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 cemented his standing as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood. 2018’s Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Sheridan’s writing with Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and Brolin’s bullish yet principled Matt Graver, but minus the other prominent figures with Stefano Sollima behind the camera and Dariusz Wolski on lensing duties. New cast members include Isabela Moner, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Elijah Rodriguez, their presence expanding the scope of this follow-up. Concerns over terrorism and pirating give the film a more global flavour, although these elements serve more as a distraction than contextualisation. The film’s subject matter feels ripped from the headlines as immigration is a prominent feature, much of the film involving Mexicans illegally entering the United States. While there is (currently) no wall, there are certainly obstacles as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit the desperate. Into this potent mix Matt sends Alejandro, with the goal of starting a war between drug cartels. The film is efficiently put together, with several gripping set pieces including a gruelling gun battle on a deserted desert road. Oddly, the film’s more affecting moments are quiet interchanges, especially between Alejandro and Isabel Reyes (Moner), daughter of a cartel head that Alejandro takes custody of. Their relationship is engaging, while Matt’s clashes with his government superior Cynthia Foards (Keener) and Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) highlight the political agenda. Unfortunately, these disparate elements are not cohered, while a subplot involving young Mexican-American Miguel Hernandez (Rodriguez) never convinces. Worse, the film lacks the nihilism of the original, and in its final act there are several moments that could be shockingly cruel, but instead the film loses its nerve and takes the narrative beyond its natural conclusion. The border has many interesting stories, but this is one of the lesser ones.

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Wind River

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Taylor Sheridan is a very fine writer. His previous works Sicario and Hell Or High Water beautifully captured the drama of people caught between social and historical developments. Much the same is true of Wind River, the third in Sheridan’s loose ‘border trilogy’. What the earlier films also had were very fine directors, and Sheridan proves himself less accomplished in this respect as Wind River lacks the enveloping dread that Denis Villeneuve brought to Sicario and the muscular doggedness that David MacKenzie delivered with Hell Or High Water. Sheridan handles his Native American reservation-set thriller solidly but unimaginatively, sometimes overusing dialogue to express the marginalisation and discrimination suffered by one of America’s most underprivileged demographics. Much of this rumination is delivered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter and tracker with a tangential connection to the inhabitants of the Wind River reservation. After finding the body of a teenage girl in the snow, Cory assists investigating FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). The subsequent investigation between these mismatched partners is functional, if problematic as it foregrounds white characters in a story ostensibly concerned with Native Americans. Sheridan does not explore the social tensions in much depth, again resorting to telling rather than showing, as well as a rather clumsy flashback that depicts escalating events that are disturbing if rather rushed. However, when the film relies on its visuals, it succeeds admirably, as Sheridan delivers set pieces that are gripping and even shocking in their suddenness, expressing the life or death urgency of the environment. And it is in the environment that Wind River attains heights as lofty as the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains (Utah standing in for Wyoming). Cinematographer Ben Richardson lenses the landscape with awe inspiring scale, the expanses of snow and ice rendered in a splendour that leave the viewer chilled to the soul. Wind River may not offer much food for thought, but it certainly offers a feast for the eyes.

Hell Or High Water

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I recently cited The Infiltrator as an example of films that have a pronounced interest in finance, films that could be termed post-recession films. Many of these have been thrillers, mixing financial machinations with longer established generic elements, and Hell or High Water is another of these. David Mackenzie’s film of Taylor Sheridan’s script also incorporates aspects of the western into its heist thriller narrative, as Howard brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) commit very specific and careful robberies, while Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) perform a methodical investigation. Mackenzie’s borrowing from the western includes many wide-angled shots, shots that are sustained for long takes to capture prolonged action such as the brothers’ heists. Similarly, the Texas landscape and small, deteriorating towns express the liminal status of people caught between their ownership and what they owe to banks. Meanwhile, the film deploys the pleasures of the heist thriller through the execution of the robberies, both calculated and impulsive. Even the clichés of Hamilton approaching retirement and his constant insulting of his long-suffering partner are played as genuine rather than stereotypical. By marshaling these various generic elements with an absorbing and gripping visual style, Mackenzie has crafted an intelligent and effective thriller, as Hell or High Water imbues familiar film elements with a sober real world dimension.

Sicario

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Sicario is a film about liminality, that which exists in a phase between states. The film’s liminal features includes the geographical borderlands between Mexico and the United States, the people who are somewhere between police and military, and a practice of law enforcement that is at best legally dubious. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a special task force headed by government agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), only to become increasingly disturbed by the missions of Graver as well as the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). The viewer’s discomfort also increases, as director Denis Villeneuve creates some incredibly tense set pieces that often erupt into shocking violence, all delivered unflinchingly so that we feel the impact of bullets and the smack of wet blood. Much of the film’s power can be credited to director of photography Roger Deakins, who previously worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners. The desert landscapes are rendered in exquisite detail that is both beautiful and terrible, both at ground level and in remarkable aerial shots that serve a narrative purpose of showing us drone footage used by the task force, and a stylistic purpose for showing the bleak pitiless of the landscape. A night raid begins with the team descending from a gorgeous sunset into an inky blackness, all within a single, static shot. Multiple camera types convey this sequence, including infra red and night vision as well as normal digital photography, and yet this extra visual detail adds to the confusion and sense of other-worldliness. Similarly, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is menacing and invasive to the point of being oppressive, as the film moves into ever more murky territory. Sicario does not succumb to genre clichés as Prisoners did, debut screenwriter Taylor Sheridan instead maintaining the story’s conceit of liminality as well as its grim tone, as the placement of Alejandro and Macer’s position towards the events she witnesses and participates in remain ambiguous. Whereas crime thrillers of this sort often feature some measure of hope or at least catharsis, here the viewer is left with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a disturbing glimpse into a harrowing world where cynicism and violence are the only way of life.