The West looms large in the world of Taylor Sheridan.
The actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-director — who grew up on a ranch near Cranfills Gap, Texas, in Bosque County, attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High School, and now lives in the wilds of Wyoming — has used the region as a vivid backdrop for his storytelling.
But it’s not the West of Monument Valley and the Mojave Desert, but the West of drug traffickers, economic dislocation and racial friction that populates his fiction.
His first screenplay, for the 2015 film “Sicario” starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, was set at the front lines of the cartel war along the border badlands between the U.S. and Mexico. His second, the Oscar-nominated “Hell or High Water” with Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, followed the exploits of two bank-robbing brothers in West Texas.
Now, his latest film, the murder mystery “Wind River” starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, is the final chapter in what Sheridan says is his trilogy about the modern American frontier. However, it stands apart from his previous productions as it’s his first time in the director’s chair of a major feature film and it’s set on and around an American Indian reservation in Wyoming.
“I don’t think you can look at the frontier without looking at the reservations, the life on it and the injustices of it,” said Sheridan, 48, by phone from a set in Montana where he is at work on another Western project called “Yellowstone,” the debut series for the new Paramount Network, coming in 2018. “So it felt like a fitting conclusion.
“I’m writing about places that I know,” he continued. “I was raised in Texas, moved to Wyoming and these were areas that I knew. I know these mountains well. I know this place, and it’s an incredible place. It’s an incredibly harsh place at times, just in terms of landscape. And (it’s about) people whose story is not being told and a people who, in a lot of circumstances, are in very dire circumstances.”
Renner plays a Wyoming fish and wildlife ranger who is asked to help a young FBI agent from Fort Lauderdale by way of Las Vegas, played by Elizabeth Olsen, investigate the rape and murder of a young American Indian woman. Much as in “Sicario,” in which the FBI agent played by Blunt found herself plunged into a nightmarish, morally muddy universe that collided with her middle-class, by-the-book expectations, Olsen’s Jane Banner must come to terms with something about which she’s never given more than a passing thought: the legacy of the hundreds of years of bad blood and broken promises between whites and American Indians.
She is a stand-in for America’s collective consciousness.
“There’s no way to describe the reservation,” says Sheridan, who says he has had American Indian friends who’ve lived on reservations and that he has spent quite a bit of time on them. “People won’t believe that it exists. They won’t believe a place with that much inequity exists in the United States, with that much exploitation. And yet, it’s a community that’s fighting; they don’t give up.”
As Sheridan is not American Indian, he says he felt internal pressure to get the portrayal correct.
“I know I had to be respectful with their culture,” he said. “I have Native American friends that I can turn to and say, ‘Hey man, give this a read. What do you think?’
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