Sheridan wants to teach by tragedy, so his protagonists are essentially honorable, which is no longer tolerated in our storytelling.
Taylor Sheridan's Fallen World
Taylor Sheridan is Father Mapple, the preacher in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The famed American novel includes Mapple’s and, perhaps, Sheridan’s sermon to America. Preaching from the Bible book of Jonah, Mapple says:
In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!’ [Jonah] groans, ‘straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’ Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.
Channeling Mapple, Taylor Sheridan “holds a mirror up” to America in his screenplays, helping his viewers to see the need for repentance. New movies and streamers expose any number of evils endemic to modern society. And each 21st century Sheridan hero fights for ideals in reality’s gray landscape.
Sheridan’s script for the movie Sicario offers a hard look at the drug trade, questioning whether a man can be a hero when he himself does heinous things. Sheridan’s screenplay for Hell or High Water displays an economic system that punishes the generational poor encouraging anti-hero brothers to steal in order to balance the financial scales. Sheridan’s creation The Mayor of Kingstown shows the defects of the prison system and explores the volatility of holding a tension between good and evil, where the definitions of those terms are anything but clear. His story Wind River calls to account those who would forget the marginalized, specifically, missing Native American women for whom no ledger is kept. Sheridan knows from experience about the lack of reportage. “I had two researchers spend three months trying to find a statistic. They came back and said, ‘Taylor, we cannot find a statistic.’ No one’s keeping it. And I said, ‘well, that’s our statistic.'” Melville’s words are written across the mirror of every Sheridan script, “Take heed to repent.”
Hollywood loves Sheridan for his success while Sheridan himself finds success in writing scripts he cares about. He protects his creative control. “I don’t run a democracy. I say everything I want to say when I write a story.” His style is sparse and succinct. There is an economy to his language, and a directness to his words, no matter the subject. Sheridan’s lean prose presses a desire for universal ideals, what he calls “transcendent” concerns. The otherworldly ideal Sheridan shows on screen is in tension with the hard realities of life.
Sicario, for instance, shows Sheridan’s scriptural worldview, a seemingly black-and-white world, the clarity of good and bad, right, and wrong. As the film opens, Benicio del Toro’s character first appears to us as a righteous, avenging angel. But given the heinous, awfulness of drug cartel warfare that begins the movie, del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick must himself be the very essence of evil to battle the evil he faces. Sheridan returns to his oft-used metaphor explaining almost any protagonist in his writing, “I’m trying to let characters live in the gray, let the hero do some really bad things. It’s a mirror for us. I don’t think I’ve ever met a purely good person.”
It is the streaming series Yellowstone where America sees its reflection, the struggle between good and evil. Sheridan expects America to be answerable for her sins, showing the reverberations of consequence over the nation’s 400 years. At the very same time, Yellowstone shows that no one is without excuse; those once wronged now want to bear the cudgel against those they can dominate. Here is where Sheridan’s storylines turn into American history lessons with application for our present day. Sheridan desires “sameness” that will “give this country a sense of community,” what America “needs.” Acknowledging wrongdoing, in Sheridan’s narrative, begins by conceding, “As a nation the problems affecting anyone in that society are a problem affecting everyone in that society.” The Texas-bred screenwriter brings to the table his fifty-plus years of observing America, holding in tension the ideal and the real.
Taylor Sheridan’s stories are set in the West, in what he calls “untouched beauty.” His early days included ranching, part of his “family for generations.” Lessons Sheridan learned on the ranch were “a cowboy way of life” where living was built on the twin pillars of “self-reliance and community.” That reliance “created a code of excellence, community, faith, friendship” where “your word” meant something. Personal responsibility and care for others were baked into Sheridan’s upbringing.
The screenwriter holds up a mirror to that world, and Americans cannot seem to get enough of Sheridan’s storytelling. As Paramount’s president Chris McCarthy says, “There are very few times that my 18-year-old niece and my 80-year-old aunt ask me about the same show.” Sheridan writes a world for all of America.”
What unites the generations is Sheridan’s unique ability as a storyteller. He recreates life in the way he grew up, based on folks he knew, a way of life built upon helping others. “I think my mission, if I could call it that,” Sheridan told National Public Radio, “Is to try and find ways to show how similar we are and not how different we are.” But the most important similarity is the stark inevitability of human corruption. In Yellowstone’s opening episode, Sheridan has a Native American grandfather explain what makes all humans the same: “Nothing will change until they find a cure for human nature.” A universal truth about human nature is the internal combat of dignity versus depravity, an age-old theme in literature from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the character of Smeagol in Lord of the Rings. Goodness, righteousness, and truth exist but are always twisted out of shape by what theologians simply call “sin.” People want the best for their families yet live in the morass of human perversity, grasping for power.
As viewers come to know John Dutton, patriarch of Yellowstone Ranch, they may conclude he is a moral tyrant. Yet all the characters are deeply flawed. Everyone seeks their view of justice, which is sometimes a simple pretense for power. The Native American leader Thomas Rainwater desires a return to the land of his ancestors, but also fashions his own authoritarian rule within his tribe. Rip Wheeler, a Dutton adopted son, gives unflinching loyalty to the ranch, acting with righteous resolve, even if it means murder. Beth Dutton protects the ranch by turning the flame of her childhood sin into a raging inferno, consuming every enemy who dares cross her path. The ex-con Walker accepts the terms of working on the ranch, desiring no part of Dutton’s transgressions, but ultimately capitulates to the Yellowstone ethos. Even Native American Monica Dutton, despite her honorable commitment to remain unsullied from Dutton sin, lives within Yellowstone’s advantages, using its power to her benefit. Every external foe, from developers to environmentalists to political opponents to business conglomerates, wants what they want, when they want it. They are really no different from the Dutton family whom they so often envy and despise. Living in the tension between ideal and real, the protagonist and antagonist are constantly changing roles.
Just ahead of the finale in the Sheridan script for Hell or High Water, the two marshals chasing the bank-robbing brothers discuss the universal principle of people changing roles. Alberto Parker, a Native American marshal, instructs his European American partner Marcus Hamilton in the way of all flesh. The marshals look across the street at a bank branch from which the brothers are stealing monies to right the wrongs perpetrated against their family. Parker’s soliloquy speaks the principle for all people, all time, all places, and all cultures.
A long time ago your people were the Indians, till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. One hundred and fifty years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday.
Shifting from ethnic to economic injustices, Parker concludes, “Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now it’s been taken from them. ‘Cept it ain’t no army doin’ it.” Then pointing at the bank, he says, “It’s those sons o’ bitches right there.” Sheridan makes us all look in his mirror.
Throughout all my forty years of teaching, I have tried to help students see the tension between the ideal and the real, between their desire for righteousness countered by their own unrighteousness. I have always asked two questions of those who would want to lecture us on any national, ethnic, economic, or religious sin: what does your perfect world look like and how will you get us there? “We have seen the enemy and he is us” is the truest of statements. None of us is unsullied from the ills of society because we are society.
There is no nation, and no people group that can claim to pontificate on goodness when evil resides in every human heart. Taylor Sheridan’s beneficent desire for “sameness” is his ideal, his attempt to override our human concupiscence. Moby Dick and Yellowstone may have American roots. But all humanity seeks Sheridan’s transcendent ideals. We know we need to repent and seek a savior from our sins, the like of which inhabits “the chambers of our souls in all their crookedness.”