Essays · Movies

The Failed Fathers Behind Taylor Sheridan’s Neo-Westerns

Taylor Sheridan’s films are about failed fathers overcoming their failures.
Director Taylor Sheridan On The Set Of Wind River
By  · Published on June 26th, 2018

You probably know who Taylor Sheridan is by now––and if you don’t, you definitely should. An Academy Award-nominee, Sheridan wrote the critically acclaimed films Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River––which he also directed. These three films launched Sheridan to the forefront of upcoming writer-directors to look out for and is well on his way to the premier level of writer-directors like Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, and The Coen Brothers.

Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River are all lauded for telling complex, visceral stories about flawed, real characters and the modern American frontier. Sheridan is a fantastic storyteller, his intense films always bring discomfort and the layered themes in his films keep you thinking about them for days. While his work may be seen as a revitalization of the Western genre, they also stand as compelling think pieces about failed fatherhood and overcoming these failures.

“The true theme of the trilogy is failed fathers — how they failed and how they overcame that failure. Then I wrap that into a suspense-thriller package,” said Sheridan in an interview with Vulture.

While Sheridan’s characters may not be overcoming failed fatherhood in the most legal ways, their unparalleled resolve to overcome failure stand as an important lesson for all of us to follow. Let’s unpack these fathers’ actions in the unofficial Frontier Trilogy.


Sicario (2015)

Sheridan’s first produced screenplay, Sicario, brought audiences to the thrilling world of drug cartels and gang lords. Told through the perspective of young FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), Sicario hits you hard with an intense outlook on The War on Drugs and American violence. Kate is invited to work on a government task force with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and gangster-turned government operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro). While they venture into murky waters, Kate questions the legality of their actions as they proceed to apprehend cartel leaders and torture gangsters. She grows increasingly more suspicious of their questionable actions and eventually learns that the government is trying to control foreign drug distribution and that Alejandro’s family was murdered by the cartel leader they’re pursuing.

This is our first instance of failed fatherhood. Alejandro failed to keep his family safe. He failed to protect his wife and daughter from a rival cartel and instead of giving up and wallowing in sorrow, he chose to avenge his family. It’s a classic revenge story. He chose to overcome his failure, but in doing so, he sacrificed his allegiances and his beliefs in order to leverage his position on the enemy. Thus, he teamed with the American government and plowed through the Southern United States and Mexico, breaking laws in order to bring down drug lords and cartels, fulfilling Alejandro’s failure as a father. Here, we see that sacrifices were made. Not just by Alejandro, but by the American government through Alejandro’s determination.

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Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water marked Sheridan’s first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film follows Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), two bank-robbing brothers seeking to pay for the land they are losing. Meanwhile, Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are hot on their tail trying to solve the case. Hell or High Water clearly stands as a melancholic yet energetic crime thriller wrapped into a commentary on the lingering effects of the housing crisis. The commentary on failed fatherhood is less clear but provides a more substantial theme to think about.

We learn that Toby is divorced with two kids who are living with their mom in poverty. Furthermore, we learn that his family’s ranch will be foreclosed soon because of debt unpaid by their recently deceased mother. Toby has failed to provide for his family. Through the complexities of the housing market and the nature of small-town jobs, his children are living in poverty and his mom couldn’t pay for their land. Toby failed to fulfill the American dream. In response to his failure, he doesn’t choose to live in poverty, he chooses to overcome his failure and fulfill his role as the provider. Admittedly, robbing banks and murdering people is very illegal in the United States and no one should emulate Toby’s plan, but his determination and his drive are worth emulating.


Wind River (2017)

Sheridan’s directorial debut did not disappoint Wind River. He brings all the traditional Sheridan tropes into his debut: a hopeless frontier, uncomfortable tension, and of course, a story about overcoming failed fatherhood.

In Wind River, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) teams up with FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve a rape and murder mystery. The victim is a young Native American woman who was well liked in the community and close friends with Cory’s deceased daughter. We learn that Cory’s daughter had died three years before in a similar way, prompting his divorce and apparent loneliness. Cory failed to protect his daughter and never had closure. Unlike Alejandro, he didn’t seek revenge against all those responsible, instead, he sought to bring closure to those who didn’t have it. Cory traverses the unrelenting perils of the Wyoming winter and a destitute community to bring justice to a family that he never had. Wind River is a cold thriller that not only sheds light on injustices towards Native Americans, but it also prompts us to seek justice for all, even when we don’t have it.

I’m certainly excited for anything that Sheridan makes because he always gets me thinking about things that I need to overcome and how I ought to do it. He is certainly a talented storyteller and will grace us with hopeless frontiers and gut-wrenching tension for years to come.

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Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.