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 guarante 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 turne cold-blood killer for hire, and Matt Graver. A quirky, outspoken CIA operative with exploitative tendencies. We learn in the first installment that Graver is often call in as a last resort. That 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 horrify eyes. Her shock 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. That 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 guard 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 carry out with emotionless disdain. In Soldado, Alejandro grows attach to the daughter of the cartel kingpin who order 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. That has made Sheridan into something of a darling writer of late.
Across his works, Sheridan create 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 popula with rugg 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 emerge from the theater feeling out of sorts, like I had watch Michael Bay’s version of a Sheridan film. The quiet subtleness of the script had been replace by extra explosions and clichéd action lines like “Luck doesn’t live on this side of the border.”
Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, and language)
Genre: Action & Adventure, Drama
Directed By: Stefano Sollima
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner
Written By: Taylor Sheridan
In Theaters: Jun 29, 2018 Wide
On Disc/Streaming: Sep 18, 2018
Runtime: 122 minutes
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Benicio Del Toro is incredible, the story is gripping, it is different then the first film.
Every moment of Sicario: Day of the Soldado is soaked in an unilluminating and easy cynicism.
‘Day of the Soldado’ would be hard to stomach at any time. It feels particularly worthless now.