Then Sheridan, who grew up in Texas, started writing screenplays including a trilogy set in the West. He has said in interviews that he’s interested in exploring the American frontier 150 years later. What has changed? What hasn’t?
The first of these films, “Sicario,” a tough-as-nails action-drama along the Texas-Mexico border starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benico Del Toro, came out last year and earned deserved rave reviews.
His second film “Hell or High Water” opens this week. It’s a modern-day Western along the lines of “No Country for Old Men” with a mixture of dry humor, unsettling violence and an examination of inner clockwork of damaged men in a damaged world.
The Coen Bros. come to mind, not just because of the great “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo” but that strangely alluring mixture of dark humor interrupted by bloodshed where laughs catch in your throat. Is this funny? Well, no, it’s not. Yet certain pointed, funny lines resonate long after the final fadeout.
Directed by British filmmaker David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”), the film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers, who reunite for a bank robbery spree across West Texas, and Jeff Bridges, in fine form as as the rumpled Texas Ranger headed for retirement, who takes it upon himself to hunt the men down.
The story sprawls across a benighted land of parched, dusty prairies, bordered-up homes, oil rigs and towns that long ago played their last picture shows. Banks are set to foreclose on many forlorn shacks, most worth nothing really unless one of those oil rigs is extracting oil from underneath the shack.
Which is what prompts the crime spree. Toby (Pine) has struggled all his life but he’s a straight arrow, a divorced father trying to make a better life for his sons. Brother Tanner (Foster) is his exact opposite: with a long criminal record, he’s a loose cannon recently out of stir.
Their late mother’s prolonged illness forced her to take out a reverse mortgage on her shack, which along with back taxes, means Toby must come up with a sizable sum by the following week to stave off a bank foreclosure.
Toby asks his brother, who stayed away during their mom’s final illness, to use his skills for the common good. Together the two rob several branches of the very bank about to foreclose on the family land. Toby sort of likes the idea of robbing from the bank in order to pay off their debt with its own money.
The brothers are careful to rob small branches in small towns and take only what’s in the tills, not money from back safes that can be traced.
Figuring this all out almost immediately is soon-to-retire Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), who drags a highly reluctant partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) across the forlorn country as he tries to guess which branch the robbers will hit next.
Just as a certain edginess creeps into the relationship between the two semi-estranged brothers, Marcus and Alberto engage in barbed insults: Marcus focuses on Alberto’s Native American-Mexican heritage while Alberto zeroes in on his aging partner’s creeping “senility.”
The land these Western men crisscross, once the domain of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Budd Boetticher, has been reduced to a dust bowl of forgotten dreams and wasted lives. Meanwhile, former lords of these plains, the cowboys and the Indians of old, have been reduced to mean tempered men of little ambition and bitter regrets.
Today they’re lords of nothing, a Comanche man sneers resentfully in a casino. (The script’s original title was “Comancheria,” the Comanche name for the region where the story takes place.) The name Comanche itself means enemy, the man snorts. For him, everyone is an enemy. That outlook permeates the sensibilities of nearly everyone these two sets of men run into.
Some of these encounters are quite funny, though. The first bank employee the robbers in masks meet notes they seem to be quite new at this enterprise given all the mistakes they’re making. Another battle-ax of a waitress in a tiny café tells the two lawmen what they’re ordering; they get little say-so in the matter.
Then too, the drawbacks of Texas’ open-carry laws make the challenges of both cops and robbers more complicated. Pulling out a gun is many males’ way of evening the odds in confrontational encounters. Here the Old West and New West diverge almost not at all.
Instant posses and gun-totting fools have a better chance of getting to these outlaws before the Rangers do. Even those characters not carrying firearms act as if they did.
Sheridan sets up situations and dialogue that are an actor’s dream. A master of subtext, he gives them several things to play in the same moment. He’s also been lucky in his two films to have had brilliant directors.
Denis Villeneuve filled every scene in “Sicario” with energy and nervous tension. The land may be flat but the ground is always shaky.
Mackenzie too makes sure his actors are well served by their placements in scenes and by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ framing and camera movements. Observe even the film’s opening scene where the camera tracks the movements of the first bank robbery, following a car and then a bank employee and then the men in masks.
This tracking shot perfectly catches the desperation of the act, the looseness of the crime — do they want to get caught? — and the anger behind it.
Throughout the movie, Mackenzie plays to the script’s strengths — its terse, ripe dialogue, the vividness of each character even minor ones. The bleakness of the landscape and hopelessness of the cops-and-robbers scenario make for fine comedy yet by the end laughs have long faded away.
A bleak and black comedy has suddenly turned to stark tragedy. But no one left standing is sure how to go forward. Will justice be served? Well, it all depends on how you define justice and who’s justice it means to be.
“Hell or High Water” may be the best picture released so far in 2016. Meanwhile, Sheridan currently is in the director’s chair himself for his third screenplay, “Wild River,” set on an Indian reservation in Wyoming.
Opens: August 12, 2016 (CBS Films & Lionsgate)
Production companies: Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Film 44, LBI Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey, Kevin Rankin, Buck Taylor
Director: David Mackenzie
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn
Executive producers: Gigi Pritzker, Bill Lischak, Michael Nathanson, Rachel Shane, John Penotti, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Tom Duffield
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Editor: Jake Roberts
R rating, 102 minutes