Did he forget about Vile? Or does he want us to?
Taylor Sheridan, writer of the hits Sicario and Hell or High Water, premiered his new film Wind River at Sundance this weekend. By many accounts, it’s a tight, thrilling continuation of the themes with which he worked in his previous films. But the main difference this time is that Sheridan is no longer only the writer – he spent his time at Sundance calling Wind River his directorial debut.
Sheridan directed a microbudget indie-horror film called Vile in 2009. I saw it at Bloomington, Indiana’s Dark Carnival – a festival for independent horror films – when the festival’s director told me it was worth catching. I was fascinated by the bizarre mix of Saw-referencing torture porn and capitalist critique. The film tells the story of a group of friends returning from an idyllic vacation, only to be gassed by a random woman at a diner (McKenzie Westmore, of the show Face Off) and wake up amongst strangers, locked in a decrepit house with mechanical devices running out of their necks. A sinister message explains to them that they must take turns hurting each other to generate a fluid that will run out of their bodies into tubes strapped to their backs. Anyone who doesn’t fill their tank by suffering through the ordeal will die. And out come the instruments of torture.
If it sounds like a convoluted setup, I won’t dissuade you of that notion. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most people who have seen Vile hate it. It’s low-budget and often looks it; it’s torture-porn that arrived just after that wave came crashing down; and the details of the medical science and overall torture scheme… leave room for some questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone who has seen it adds further grievances in the comment section.
But I found it interesting. The questions it touches on – from “What kind of terrible things will we do in the name of high-dollar medicine?” to “What are the most effective ways to inflict pain on yourself without causing permanent damage?” – are intriguing. The performances are often quiet and tender or vicious and scary in ways that feels genuine, quite possibly due to Sheridan’s previous work as a top-tier acting coach. The cinematography, pacing, sound, and music are solid for a micro-budget horror flick. Many would likely argue that public opinion and good taste are against me on this one, and I’ll admit that expectations change at a small festival focused on films of this size. That said, Vile is still miles ahead of most anonymous horror rentals you would grab out of a half-empty Redbox.
So – why try to hide it? Vile appeared on Sheridan’s IMDB page until 2015, when it was removed and made to look like there was another director by the same name (though it was returned to that page just this afternoon.) Sheridan’s own publicity has wiped any reference to the film, and he has insisted on referring to Wind River as his debut over the course of Sundance. I’ve been wondering why this falsehood bugs me as much as it does. It’s not uncommon for big names in the entertainment industry to hide what they consider their embarrassing beginnings. It was a running joke for years how Renee Zellweger wouldn’t discuss Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Leonard DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire sued to make Don’s Plum disappear. And rumor has it, James Cameron used to walk out of interviews if anyone brought up Piranha II: The Spawning.
What bothers me is less the idea of Sheridan wanting to separate himself from a film that he feels doesn’t represent his best work. The problem is more Sheridan recreating the narrative of “Look what I did my first time!” that plays so well at festivals and then reaping the benefits from it. Anyone who has ever worked on feature-film knows the process is daunting. Trying to wrangle all of the elements of filmmaking and keep them together with continuity for that many days in a row is difficult, let alone trying to turn the process into cinematic magic. Ask any of the filmmakers at Sundance with their actual debut feature, and they’ll give you insights into how hectic the process is. Not to say that filmmaking ever gets easy, but Sheridan had the toughest one out of the way – and he’s had six years since to let that information percolate. He deserves credit for however good Wind River is; he doesn’t deserve to act like gold came out of his first time behind the camera lens.
At the same time, this little untruth isn’t about just getting some momentary praise. It’s about trying to elevate Sheridan’s name as fast as possible. How quickly can he get to the cinephile boys club of Tarantino, Anderson, and the Coen Brothers? Can we already count him amongst the ranks of prominent up-comers like Jeff Nichols, Jeremy Saulnier, and Adam Wingard? In reality, we shouldn’t be trying to hammer our understanding of filmmakers into this mold to begin with. But we’re all the more likely to think that Sheridan must be an unequivocally “good director” – well on his way to Denis Villenueve-status – if this is his starting off point. Of course, Villeneuve, Nichols, Saulnier, and Wingard were never so quick to dismiss their past works in order to make a bigger leap out of the starting gate. Without the status of “directorial debut,” it would be interesting to see how many reviews of Wind River might be a little more restrained. But the goal of hiding a film such as Vile is to control the information and make Sheridan seem like an intrinsically talented star that we needn’t take a moment to pause and potentially critique – nothing creepy about that, right?
In the process, horror films also get taken down a notch. One of Sheridan’s biggest benefits right now is he’s making films in a genre that has a healthy crossover audience between film critics, film nerds, and dads everywhere – gritty neo-Westerns that play like grimy 70’s action flicks, when men were men and movies were movies. I don’t actually dislike the genre, but I do bristle at how easy it can be to squeeze good reviews out of it, quality of your film be damned. The kind of microbudget horror film that Sheridan made in Vile tends to suffer a different fate. A few are elevated to top-tier status; but outside of the Paranormal Activity’s and It Follows’s, most are quickly shrugged off, assumed to be throwaways in a genre that produces its fair share, and never considered in any actual depth. It’s just another bad horror movie, right? Film fans can get so excited to put things in boxes marked “good” and “bad” that films like Vile get shuffled to their latter box with barely a blink. Sheridan knows about this reputation, and he dumped Vile to keep any of his stock out of the “bad” box. Instead of horror getting some credit for helping give him a start, he disassociates with it as soon as possible to make more prestigious films. It’s an old story at this point – one that keeps people looking down on the horror genre while it gives them so much in return.
I know a lot of people might say it only makes sense for Sheridan to shun Vile. It was a small enough film that it was easy to hide, Sheridan feels like his career is just now actually starting thanks to Sicario and Hell or High Water, and “directorial debut” sure sounds good in interviews and pull-quotes (it’s right there representing Todd McCarthy’s Hollywood Reporter review on Rotten Tomatoes right now.) The jury is still out on whether the friends he made Vile with would appreciate the bump that his newfound celebrity could bring to the film. But as we’ve been seeing a lot as of late, little lies add up to bigger issues, and if a fib doesn’t matter, someone doesn’t tend to tell it in the first place. Acting like Wind River is Sheridan’s first film gives him an unearned boost while acting like smaller films don’t matter unless we want them to. As a prominent screenwriter, he should know it’s always better to tell the whole story.