Texan Taylor Sheridan created the 21st-century Western, but his attempts at political nuance are overshadowed by the failures of “Soldado.”
Taylor Sheridan’s movies are depressing. The native Texan has a knack for a script, and he’s largely responsible for bringing the modern Western into being, but you will never walk out of a Sheridan movie with a smile on your face. For the viewer who essentially paid to experience said depression, this issue is usually surmountable with the quiet subtlety of his writing (yes, even with all the gunfire guaranteed in any Western) and stunning performances by talents such as Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Jeremy Renner and Jeff Bridges. Usually. Sheridan’s most recent film, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to 2015’s Sicario, proves to be the exception to the rule. Even worse, the film plays into ruinous border stereotypes.
In Soldado, del Toro and Josh Brolin reprise their respective roles as Alejandro, a grief-stricken father turned cold-blooded killer for hire, and Matt Graver, a quirky, outspoken CIA operative with exploitative tendencies. We learned in the first installment that Graver is often called in as a last resort to create chaos for the members of the cartels who run drugs and migrants over the border. The 2015 film begins with a raid on a house in Tucson, led by Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer. Her team discovers 35 decomposing bodies in the walls of the house, each with a plastic bag over their head. We take in this gruesome scene through Macer’s horrified eyes, and her shocked reaction sets the tone for the movie, making the actions of Alejandro and Graver (and the ever-present, if rarely effective, moral voice of Macer attempting to intervene) seem plausible and in some ways, even acceptable. But Soldado lacks a moral anchor and fails to create a tone for itself in its opening, setting viewers adrift. The whole thing watches like a Breitbart wet dream of extreme ethnic stereotypes, from Somali pirates to Middle Eastern terrorists and suicide bombers entering the United States with the help of Mexican cartels. Indeed, Breitbart’s review of the film states, “This is, without question, a two-hour commercial for Trump’s border wall. … We are watching a Hollywood product with the moral courage to tell the truth about just how deadly our southern border is, this poorly guarded frontier we share with a failing and corrupt country.”
Soldado presents the viewer with the premise that Muslim extremists have crossed from Mexico into Texas with a coyote operation run by the cartels — ominously leaving behind prayer rugs in the desert after Border Patrol officers catch (and are subsequently blown up by) a man of Middle Eastern descent. Shortly after, three men enter a grocery store in small-town Kansas and detonate suicide bombs. One of the men waits until a mother and her young, blonde daughter are as close to him as possible, begging for their lives, to set off the explosion. Thus the government is thrown into action, calling in Graver to disrupt the cartels with a plot to pit them against one another, allowing the United States to take advantage of the chaos. Graver is given funds to hire outside forces and goes to Alejandro next, looking to set him loose on those responsible for murdering his wife and daughter. “No rules this time,” Graver tells him, a statement that plays out somewhat contradictory to the first film, when Alejandro’s mission was carried out with emotionless disdain. In Soldado, Alejandro grows attached to the daughter of the cartel kingpin who ordered the hit on his family.
Ultimately, Graver’s plan to start a war between the cartels goes awry, a plot device that feels lazy for a Sheridan script. Much of Sheridan’s skill lies in his tone-setting and character-building, not his ability to turn a phrase. As Isaac Butler writes in Slate, “Sheridan has a milieu, and an approach, but aside from the occasional howler … his actual sentences are nondescript. Their most distinctive feature is their loud broadcasting of the seriousness of their own purpose.” This approach lends itself to the ability Sheridan’s scripts have to attract such high-caliber talent. That, alongside his knack for world-building, which he has demonstrated now over four films — with Hell or High Water and Wind River nestled between the two Sicario movies — has made Sheridan into something of a darling writer of late.
Across his works, Sheridan created the Western for the new age, not a kitschy throwback like 2016’s The Magnificent Seven or genre-bending science fiction like Westworld, but an honest-to-God modern Western. This is where Sheridan’s inner Texan shines through. His films are populated with rugged individualists, 21st-century cowboys who strongly believe in the Second Amendment and respect the lawman, if not always the laws themselves. Sheridan has several family members in law enforcement, including his uncle Parnell McNamara, who is McLennan County sheriff. McNamara was also the inspiration for Bridges’ character in Hell or High Water, a Texas Ranger going up against bank-robbing brothers with the best of intentions — to steal money from the bank that is foreclosing on the family farm in order to save it. The government, corporate banks, shadowy criminal organizations: any faceless entity that could have it out for the little guy is ultimately the villain in Sheridan’s world. Lofty veins of populism with a whiff of social liberalism seep almost unnoticeable from Sheridan’s films — or, more likely, this is where his true skill lies: He gives the viewer such a broad range of vaguely political positions that the audience simply sees what they want.
This is where I found myself after seeing Soldado.
I emerged from the theater feeling out of sorts, like I had watched Michael Bay’s version of a Sheridan film. The quiet subtleness of the script had been replaced by extra explosions and clichéd action lines like “Luck doesn’t live on this side of the border.”
Considering Sheridan’s work as a whole, I’ve begun questioning my lefty perceptions of his previous films. Soldado’s border premise is reckless at best, and at worst, plain dangerous, at a time when tensions on the border couldn’t be higher. Perhaps simply as a product of bad editing, it’s revealed in a throwaway line toward the end of the film that the suicide bombers in Kansas did not cross the border from Mexico but were in fact U.S. citizens hailing from New Jersey. The line is easy to miss in a busy scene, failing to bring any sense of balance to the overwrought sequence at the beginning of the film.
On the heels of Hell or High Water in 2016, Sheridan told Texas Monthly, “If you can tell my political viewpoint from the film, then I’m doing a disservice to the viewer. I don’t want to make it obvious what the movie is saying.” While this seems like a perfectly reasonable approach, it begins to feel less benign and more like obfuscation when the stories you’re telling deal with of-the-moment political issues affecting people’s lives in very real ways. With Soldado, Sheridan has shown his hand — and with it stripped away some of the nuance that made his previous films so accessible.