Saturday, March 25, 2023

Lord of the Plains: Discovering the Real Taylor Sheridan

Ben Foster in Hell or High Water (2016), OddLot Entertainment and Lionsgate Films

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs in one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties. I work for a venerable finance firm that doesn’t just have an office building but supports an entire “campus.”

Fitting, as many of my co-workers graduated from prestigious Ivy League universities situated on sprawling grounds. I did not.

Cowboying? Folks from these parts don’t even mow their own lawns. They have nannies and personal assistants and people to do their shopping for them. And yet, the water cooler chit-chat at that campus often revolves around them counting the days between Yellowstone episodes, giddy with anticipation I've not seen since that long ago summer when we all wondered who shot J.R.

Widespread appeal far beyond what you’d normally expect for a show about rural people doing rural things, buoyed by their unusual good looks and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of ass kickin' thrown in too, is exactly how we got to where we are today. And just where is that, you ask?

Kansas, my dear Dorothy, or Montana—same difference as long as it's somewhere with a view of the big, blue sky. Maybe it’s not so perplexing that these city slickers who have everything they could possibly desire except space to spread out want to be out there in the great wide open, so long as they’re actually all bundled up warm and cozy on the other side of their 80-inch TVs watching those pretty ranchers ranch and not getting any mud on their own designer boots.

They’ve glommed on so hard that Yellowstone’s cavernous borders couldn’t hold back this relentless westward expansion. Faster than you can say “gold rush,” we loaded up the wagons and moved not to Beverly Hills but right on into writer and director Taylor Sheridan’s whole “universe” of spin-offs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan too, but the Yellowstone universe sounds as nauseating to me as the Marvel multiverse. "Why is that?" you may be wondering.

Sticking with the wagon train theme, the answer is simple: y’all have hitched your wagons to the wrong horse. I’m sorry to tell you, but most of you Dutton groupies are just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies to my personal Western hoedown.

Yellowstone has its moments—Rip throwing a chair through a glass wall, eating a bullet to the belly, and beating Beth’s assailant to death comes to mind—but it’s still largely Sheridan-light. Its darkness and violence are muted by just enough hope and soapy intrigue to keep mainstream audiences coming back for their next fix.

The real Sheridan forces you to mainline that smack straight into a vein, whether you’re up for partying that hard or not. In the same way that A Perfect Circle or Puscifer could be gateway bands to Tool—solid in their own right but lacking the depth of Maynard's masterwork—Yellowstone, the pinnacle for many of you, should really only be an introduction to the best of Sheridan.

So come along now and let me show you a few of his real classics, but be forewarned, I like my entertainment the same way as my coffee, the only way a proper cup should be brewed—intense, relentless, suffocating, and black like my soul. What can I say? I guess the familiar taste of blood in my mouth has become oddly comforting in the course of a life lived.

Regardless, you'll find little in the way of catharsis here; just a brutal acknowledgment of the way things are. Okay, maybe there’s a little healing in these stories, but much like in real life, you have to endure an awful lot of pain for what’s usually a bittersweet payoff.

We first find ourselves sitting on a drab front porch on a poverty-stricken Indian reservation in some desolate corner of Wyoming. By featuring Native American characters, often but not always portraying them hopelessly, Sheridan has done more to generate awareness of the challenges they face than any other modern filmmaker I can recall, yet I’ve never seen that fact acknowledged in coverage of his work.

The tragedy depicted in this monologue, however, isn’t the exclusive domain of Native peoples. Coldly indiscriminate, it touches all races and socio-economic backgrounds and is one I’m all too familiar with—child loss.

"''re never gonna be the same. You're never gonna be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing's ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer—you allow yourself to visit her in your mind—you'll remember all the love she gave you, all the joy she knew.' Point is, Martin, you can't steer from the pain. If you do, you'll rob yourself. You'll rob yourself of every memory of her, every last one, from her first step to her last smile—kill 'em all. Just take the pain, Martin. You hear me? You take it. It's the only way you'll keep her with you."

In that monologue from Wind River, the Corey character, played by Jeremy Renner, shares more truth about the bleak reality of losing a child than anything I've ever heard from any other source, including all the professionals with whom I spoke. He's the only one who didn't gloss it over with some weak platitude about time healing all wounds or things happening for a reason.

After that feel-good moment, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that life is all sunshine and rainbows. I'd better bring you back to Earth with a visit to grayed-out Kingstown, home to not one, but seven, prisons and a host of sordid characters who either make their living off them or are incarcerated in them. Mercifully, we're on a boat with a hint of sunshine for this little gem delivered again by Sheridan favorite, Renner, this time as "Mayor" Mike McLusky.

"My father used to say, 'I can't wait to get old, for my mind to soften and my memories to rot away. The hardest thing to do is forget—forget the scars that life gives you, forget the scars you gave others. The challenge, then, is hiding a few memories worth keeping from your dying mind.' He told me to keep a journal and only write down the good things. Then, when the bad things fade away, you can read about the happy life you had. But minds don't forget so easily, and the horror that we witness and endure takes root. Only madness and dementia can remove it."

At least I have that to look forward to in my decrepitude. When I inevitably forget Ruby's name and everything she meant to me, I'll also finally be purged of the haunting memory of the day she died in my arms.

And now to where it all started for me, where I first felt Sheridan speaking to me more clearly than any other filmmaker today—on a dusty hill outside some nondescript West Texas dustbowl town. A modern-day cowboy of sorts—just not the kind you’d want anywhere near your daughter, or even your enemy for that matter unless you really hated him to the core—sits high on a rock, his rifle resting on his knee, and surveys the scene below.

What Tanner Howard, acted superbly by Ben Foster, sees is a dirt road lined with police cars and civilian trucks, all of them heavily armed and trying to pin him down on that hill. He’s led them here where he knows he’ll make his final stand and die, but incomprehensibly to most of us, that’s fine by him. While his methods and morals may be ruthless and twisted, he has a code of honor centered around family and he aims for that death to matter as much as it can in this grim version of Sheridan's universe that was born not on a picturesque Montana ranch but in a fiery hell (or high water).

Satisfied that it will, he inhales deeply and, in tribute to the Comanche who we've all but exterminated in our real westward expansion of the American empire, declares himself “Lord of the plains.”

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