America’s place in the world has never looked more uncertain. With the election of Donald Trump, and rising tensions the world over, maybe it’s time to shy away from the news. Or maybe it’s time to engage, and take a closer look at those living on the edge of American society. Taylor Sheridan sets out to do just that with his Frontier Trilogy.
‘Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end, you will understand.’ So says the mysterious Alejandro Gillick to Kate Macer as she is drawn into the high stakes game of the American War on Drugs. ‘Sicario’ is a visceral look at the daily cat and mouse game taking place across the US/Mexico border, made more intense by the aforementioned presence of Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro. He is the standout, elevating the film from a more run of the mill action thriller to something more refined. His intentions remain deliberately mysterious for much of the film, but his actions speak volumes. As the titular ‘Sicario’ of the piece, he moves like a Wolf, cocking his head as if to listen to sounds drifting on the wind, sharing experience too detailed for any agent to have. While Alejandro remains in the shadows, Kate Macer aims to remain in the light, trying to build a case as the darkness closes around her. But whether she is denied by her new bosses, or attacked by Cartel agents, the case keeps slipping away from her, and as she aims her pistol towards Alejandro, the words that he spoke to her at the briefing ring true. She comes to understand the way this new world works, though she may never accept it.
‘Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end, you will understand.’ So says the mysterious Alejandro Gillick to Kate Macer as she is drawn into the high stakes game of the American War on Drugs.
Brutality is a common feature to all of these films, but none more so than ‘Sicario’. Within the opening minutes, a vehicle rams into a Cartel building, decomposing bodies are discovered in the walls, and an explosion rings out in the Arizona air. Violence is not absent from the other films, with the gunfights of ‘Hell or High Water’ and the more insidious violence against women in ‘Wind River’ providing more than enough, but it is ‘Sicario’ where it feels the most urgent. While it has been argued that the film oversells the current state of the violence in Mexico, Taylor Sheridan’s writing must be at least, in part, influenced by the work of his brother, John Gibler, a journalist who lives in Mexico and reports on a diverse range of issues including the drugs war. The frequency of the shootouts and assassinations dulls your senses towards them as they blend together, like public attitudes to long term conflicts such as the War on Drugs. At the end of the film, gunfire blares out during a football match, but then play continues as if nothing ever happened.
‘Go west, young man, go west’ is not a quote from the next film in the trilogy, ‘Hell or High Water’. It is generally attributed to either Horace Greeley or John B.L Soule, and was used to advocate the westward migration of Americans from the East Coast into the West, forming the agricultural heartlands of the USA. But as Sheridan himself has said, this film is about what happened later, ‘about rural disenfranchisement and the way that institutions have abandoned people’, something that Taylor Sheridan has experience of; his family losing their ranch in the early 90’s recession. The film was originally titled ‘Comancheria’, alluding to the Native American tribe that originally inhabited most of the modern day south United States, and also to a quote in the film, that Comanche means ‘enemy to everyone’. The titular enemies are the Howard Brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), as they rob from the bank that is about to take away their farm, while Texas Rangers attempt to track them down. Like ‘Sicario’, this is a genre film without the excess, in this case the sharp suits and convoluted plans of the heist film. Again, the supporting characters are particular standouts, in this case Jeff Bridges as the acerbic Ranger Marcus Hamilton. He acts like a dark reflection of Kate Macer, with the same desire to close the case, but a completely different moral code. His partner Alberto, played by Gil Birmingham, is on the receiving end of a lot of his racist attitudes, but the experience Marcus brings to the case is indispensable, and eventually he ends the case with a bullet. Despite not being able to completely close the case, he too, like Kate, comes to the understanding of what must be.
Family is the key driver of all of the films in the trilogy. In ‘Sicario’, there are multiple strands, with Alejandro’s zealotry for the mission drawn from the death of his own family, while the relative normality of Silvio’s family providing a counterpoint to the death and murder of the film which we have become desensitised to, and are almost complicit in by this act. Skipping forward to ‘Wind River’, death in the family drives Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, in the quest to bring Natalie Hanson’s killer to justice, while he also provides one of the film’s most touching moments as he confronts her father with the harsh truths of death in the family. But ‘Hell or High Water’ is the epitome of this theme, with the whole plot of the film revolving around the family dynamic between the Howard brothers, and to a lesser extent, Toby’s estranged family, for whom the whole quest to save the ranch is for. Family in this film is not about the revenge of the previous film, or the grief that comes in the next, but about selfless love for one’s family, however distant.
‘This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of you’re on your own’. ‘Wind River’ explores the plight of Native Americans, in particular those of the titular Wyoming reservation, where they were forcibly resettled by the United States. Investigating the death of Natalie Hanson are Cory Lambert and Jane Banner, the latter another FBI agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen, but one of a different breed to Jane Macer. While Kate pushes through the world she’s found herself in, but never really accepts it, Jane really makes an effort to integrate with the wintery world she’s found herself in, far from her office in Las Vegas. Arriving in a heavy snowstorm in a thin shirt and coat, she is informed by Cory that she’ll be dead by the time she reaches the crime scene. She becomes more sympathetic throughout the film, and as Cory ends the film, we too accept his actions, even though they may not be by the book.
‘This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of you’re on your own’.
As with the previous two films in the trilogy, ‘Wind River’ features a stellar supporting character. In this case, the land itself. The bleak sweeping landscapes, oceans of white, isolate all those who live there; not a home but an exile. The Native Americans, forced there in years past, are kept from the lands they used to call home, while families such as Cory’s yearn to leave for a life elsewhere, but remain tied to the land. Cory himself is the bridge between these cultures, a tracker who respects the land but is also alien to it, killing the animals which interfere with the lives of the human interlopers. The land is unforgiving, a fact he understands intimately, and this shown again and again through death and decline. The use of the environment is not just a calling card of the ‘Wind River’; the other two themes both use their settings to their advantage. In ‘Sicario’, the claustrophobic nature of Juárez amplifies the tension of their mission, while the use of the harsh score at key moments, in a film where it is otherwise absent, gives a sense of malice when it is used, from the approach to the border to even the simple act of Alejandro folding his jacket. The sheer emptiness of ‘Hell or High Water’ adds to the despair of the dying towns of America, giving an edge to its people, like a certain waitress the rangers meet on their journey. The settings are integral to the power of these films; giving them a grounding that explains more than exposition ever could.
At the denouement of ‘Wind River’, as a man lays dying in the snow, the American Flag is displayed before you, in the Red of the blood, the White of the Snow, and the Blue of the clear sky above. The films aren’t perfect, but then neither is the American Dream, as exemplified by the borders of the nation this film depicts. With a sequel to ‘Sicario’, ‘Soldado’, coming up next year, I can wholeheartedly recommend these films to anyone who will care to look. America may not be in perfect shape, but it’s never been seen better.