When “Wind River” opens in Austin on Aug. 11, it’ll mark the completion of a former Austinite’s cinematic trilogy that explores failure — rather than triumph — on the modern American frontier.
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s 2015 drug-war drama “Sicario” looked at violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, his 2016 Western crime thriller “Hell or High Water” explored financial ruin in West Texas, and this year’s “Wind River” illuminates what Sheridan calls “the most tangible remnant of America’s frontier, and America’s greatest failure — the Native American reservation.”
The trilogy is a remarkable achievement by nearly anyone’s standards. It’s also notable that “Wind River” marks Sheridan’s arrival as a director, although he’s probably still most widely known as Deputy Chief David Hale on the TV series “Sons of Anarchy.”
Even the film snoots in France have taken notice of the late-blooming Texan. Sheridan won best director in the Un Certain section of the Cannes Film Festival this year for “Wind River.” Oscar voters have noticed him, too: Sheridan was nominated for best original screenplay for “Hell or High Water.”
Sheridan says he wrote the trilogy because he’s “trying to look at the consequence of conquest … and how much that consequence reverberates today.”
But he points out that the stories are very personal, too, and that he’s “dealing with the failure of fathers, and how do they move on from tragedy.”
Specifically, he’s talking about the two fathers of “Wind River” — U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who was once married to a Native American woman on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming and who still feels guilty for failing to protect his daughter, and a Native American father known only as Martin (Gil Birmingham), who has lost his daughter as well.
The tale of addiction, murder and sexual assault unfolds against a majestic, mountainous landscape. And as Sheridan puts it, the landscape is so brutal that “the rule of law gives way to the law of nature.”
You might be wondering how Native Americans feel about such a narrative. Different people might have different takes, of course. But Sheridan stresses that he’s not trying to make a political statement.
“I don’t think that a movie that deals with an area of suffering and an extremely high rate of crime and violence is political,” he says. “I look at this as a social problem, and I can’t imagine anyone defending the status quo when you have a sexual assault rate triple that of the rest of the U.S. It’s a human rights issue for all parties. … As storytellers, we can raise these issues to start a dialogue.”
Financing for the film came from Acacia Entertainment, which is a joint venture between Savvy Media Holdings and the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana.
Sheridan is also quite familiar with the Wind River area of Wyoming. He has a ranch about an hour south of Jackson Hole.
A big learning curve
So how did a kid from the Texas ranching community of Cranfills Gap end up as a movie director who has walked the red carpet at both the Oscars and Cannes?
To put it bluntly, most people probably wouldn’t have bet on Sheridan making it this far. His family was not well-to-do and eventually lost their ranch.
He dropped out of what is now Texas State University in the early 1990s and moved to Austin, where he says he was “mowing lawns and painting houses and trying to figure out what to do.”
He says he went to an Austin mall one day to look for a job and that a woman approached him and said she was from a Chicago talent agency and looking for new clients. She gave Sheridan a script and asked him to take it home and read it and show up for a reading later on.
He did. She discovered that he could act, and she bought him a plane ticket to Chicago.
He was a bit naïve at the time and saw the world as a much bigger place than he sees it now, he says. And he was skittish about flying on an airplane. So he cashed in his ticket and used the money to pay for driving his truck to Chicago. And that’s how his acting career began.
He eventually moved to New York, then Los Angeles, where he faced more than his share of hard knocks. At one point, he was literally living out of his truck in L.A. “I was really broke but made the choice not to quit and go home” to Texas, he says. “I also stayed with friends on a reservation north of L.A. They would let me go up there, and I would pitch a tent.”
But Sheridan, who’s in his late 40s, eventually found success as an actor, first in small TV roles, then as a recurring character on such shows as “Veronica Mars” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
He also got married. And his wife got pregnant. And Sheridan gradually began to realize that being an actor in his later years wasn’t going to be what he wanted. “I didn’t want to raise my son in L.A.,” he says, “and I didn’t want to have to look him in the eye and tell him I couldn’t take him to a baseball game because I had an audition for a Windex commercial.”
He started writing screenplays and eventually sold two, “Sicario” and “Comancheria,” which gave him enough money to buy his ranch in Wyoming in 2012.
“Comancheria,” as it turns out, was renamed “Hell or High Water” because the people who bought the rights didn’t think it was easy to say the original name, Sheridan says with something of a snicker.
Sheridan says his experiences over the past few years have been “pretty overwhelming,” especially his time this year at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I got to go the Oscars for ‘Hell or High Water,’ and it felt like it was the biggest thing in the world,” he says. “Then I got to Cannes and realized how much bigger it was. … At one point, I was doing interviews on this big yacht, and I felt like a giant asshole. And if I never see a glass of rosé again …”
It seems likely, however, that he will be seeing more of the popular French wine — and that the festival will be eager to invite him back.
A sequel to “Sicario,” titled “Soldado,” is in post-production. And he has written a screenplay for the new Paramount Network called “Yellowstone,” which stars Kevin Costner and looks at a Montana ranching family that’s trying to save its land.
Sheridan also hopes to get back to Austin, he says: “When I do, you can find me in the line at Franklin.”