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Taylor Sheridan: Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse; Those Who Wish Me Dead

June 19, 2021

Those of us who are fans of Taylor Sheridan’s movies have been lucky to have two of them come out already this year. The screenwriting phase of Sheridan’s career began in earnest just 6 years ago with Sicario. Most of his stories have been original, but this year’s duo are both adaptations.

It’s not hard to find throughline’s in Sheridan’s writing. In essence, he tends to take classic Western themes and use them in contemporary situations. Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado are centered around vigilantism and the lawlessness of the US-Mexico border. Hell or High Water involves desperados robbing banks in Texas. Wind River and Sheridan’s TV series Yellowstone are both about frontier justice, involve indigenous peoples, and are set in the harsh Western mountains. Any of those themes could be found in a mid-century Hollywood western.

Another thing that comes through in most of Sheridan’s work is that it is largely, though not entirely, about the hardened men that survive–or don’t–in these extreme circumstances. He does sometimes have main characters that are strong women who also know what they’re doing (Sicario, Wind River, and to some extent Yellowstone), but for the most part the ones braving the frontier and settling scores without regard to the law are men.

We live in a time of expansion of traditional roles and images. Sheridan therefore puts himself at some risk of seeming hopelessly behind the times by mostly writing men into these roles, even though historically and archetypally they would almost all have been men. I will confess that I may be likewise unfashionable, in that I myself respond aesthetically and viscerally to men acting at the edges of their capacity in extreme circumstances, honed and hardened by their high-stakes histories. I justify it by telling myself it’s my version of a super hero movie: however unrealistic it may be for me to, say, build a family cattle ranch and empire from scratch in Montana, if grown men and women can get excited by Captain America and Iron Man, I can enjoy my time fantasizing about being John Dutton for an hour a week.

I’ve never been sure that re-writing women in these same movies would produce the same effect on screen. Seeing as how Sheridan’s un- or barely-civilized characters tend to be men, there’s reason to think he has that same my suspicion. Whether or not he intended these two new movies to act as a test of the theory that men and women characters might not always be interchangeable in contemporary Western(ish) settings, by adapting others’ work Sheridan ends up giving us women in roles that would seem more traditionally suited for men.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is, as you might have guessed if you’ve heard of the name in the title, largely a spy movie. Espionage, double crossings, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, an unrealistically bad-ass protagonist, and so on. I’m not so much a connoisseur of spy thrillers, but this one seems competently done. I enjoyed it overall, though even now, a week after watching it, I find it takes effort to recall it in detail. My main point of entry was as a Sheridan fan–I probably wouldn’t have watched it had he not been a screenwriter. Because of that bias, I noticed the same Western themes of revenge, morality that might be at odds with legality, and taking justice into one’s own hands, for example. Other hallmarks of Sheridan’s, like starting the movie in media res during an intense situation, and only slowly parceling out the bigger picture as the movie goes on, help grab our attention and keep it locked in the whole time. Michael B Jordan brings a fire to the driven and periodically enraged Navy SEAL John Kelly. Like men in other Sheridan movies, he’s developed his capacity to succeed in life-or-death situations–in this case, combat–through repeated exposure to intense danger. One feels the intensity of what it must have done to his character, to his soul, and to how far he is willing to go when the need arises. One understands the ambivalence his superiors must feel both recognizing that a dangerous mission might require a man like Kelly and having reluctance to unleash him for fear of what else might come with that kind of skill set. This is the kind of man Sheridan can write as well as anyone–the kind of man you hope is on your side when you need him and who you pray stays on it.

Most of the other battle-hardened characters in Without Remorse are also men, with an exception to be found in Kelly’s superior officer, SEAL Lt Commander Karen Greer, played by Jodie Turner-Smith. Many a reviewer could simply say the character is fine, that she’s serviceable as written and played, and leave it at that. The reviews I’ve read basically just that, with nothing especially effusive or critical to say. But I’m too interested in taking advantage of this moment where Sheridan writes a character you’d expect to be the very image of a masculine alpha male (for context, Jocko Willink is one such (retired) Navy SEAL Lt Commander) but is instead a woman.

I’m enlightened enough that I am happy to try and lay my preconceptions aside and give this character a chance. I am perfectly willing to see portrayed a competent, bad-ass special forces officer who is also a woman. I’m sure women like that exist. And again, Turner-Smith’s Commander Greer was acceptable. But the thing is, the characters and the actors who play similar roles in other Sheridan screenplays jump off the screen with their over-the-top testosterone-fueled presences. I’m thinking, for example, of the hired mercenaries in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Or Sheridanverse all-star Jon Bernthal, who would have popped in this role. I can think of two scenes where Jordan’s Kelly, an absolute powerhouse of a killing machine, is positively burning with rage, and Commander Greer just . . . blends into the background, unable to match his intensity or meet him where he is to calm him down. In another scene, the team has just been ambushed and is feeling uneasy. Commander Greer starts issuing commands, as her position requires. It didn’t strike at me as incompetent or inadequate, but it was an opportunity for her to show off the kind of exceptional leadership of crack soldiers I’d expect in a SEAL officer, and she didn’t. To be fair, 99% of men probably wouldn’t be able to bring that kind of authority either. But when we’re talking about being at the extreme masculine edge, I can easily imagine men who might, and I could name dozens of actors who could pull it off. I’m not going to say there are no women who could go there, but I will say that it’s not easy for me to imagine them or make a long list of actresses obviously up to the task.

I realize this isn’t exactly a proper review of the movie. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll say it was fine. Some strengths, some weaknesses. I don’t see myself watching it again, but I don’t regret my time with it. For purposes of the project of this article, though, I will say that I think the movie would have been improved with a typical Sheridan manly man as the SEAL Commander. (Not that the movie lives or dies on that one aspect or anything.)

Those Who With Me Dead, on the other hand, is a more interesting test case. The central character is Hannah, a middle-aged, compulsively risk-seeking, rule-breaking smoke jumper/fire fighter, played by Angelina Jolie. This story didn’t originate with Sheridan either (he’s credited as the third writer), which is probably why more even than a typical Sheridan-esque character, it’s Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin in the FX TV Show Rescue Me Hannah reminds of. You know, someone who really needs to dial down the extreme behavior in order to properly function in society. The Western-style elements are also less pronounced in this movie than in Sheridan’s originals. The good guys are mostly just trying to escape the bad guys, none of whom are going to join the pantheon of Sheridan “cowboys” alongside the Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, or Jeremy Renner characters. It’s set in the mountains of Montana, and the unforgiving, chaotic power of nature does play a large role in the movie, but that’s about it as far as this being a contemporary Western.

Jolie can obviously brings as much charisma to the screen as any actress alive. So in terms of whether it changes the movie to write and cast a woman as the overly-masculine archetype, an A-list screen presence isn’t an obstacle here. I’ve seen some reviews that question Hannah’s plausibility in this movie simply because of how beautiful Jolie is. Whether that’s because someone so attractive would surely have found a husband who could pluck her out of that life, or because smoke jumping really interferes with that multi-step skincare regimen, I’m not entirely sure. But that part doesn’t bother me per se. I don’t mind engaging in a little aesthetically-pleasing suspension of disbelief.

One thing I like is that in comparison to Commander Greer, who could easily have been cast as a man with few if any changes to the script, Hannah does have a few more feminine streaks. For one thing, the others (all men) on her smoke jumping crew (is she their superior? It wasn’t clear to me) try to flirt with her, and she continually shuts them down. That said, there never seems to be any legitimate sexual tension with any of them, but that doesn’t seem central to her character. Nor does the fact that we learn who her prior romantic partner is. Who knows–maybe those things play a larger role in the book. But when she interacts with the young (pre?)teen Connor, there are times when her actions border on the maternal. It’s clear Hannah doesn’t have highly developed mothering skills, but Jolie’s performance in helping Connor did bring a contour to the film that would have seemed different somehow had Hannah been a man. Not dramatically different, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same. So I was blessed with at least one intriguing thought provoked by the subversion of my expected casting.

Another wrinkle in this exploration of women in Sheridan movies is the character of Allison in Those Who With Me Dead. She’s pregnant, but does as much ass-kicking as anyone in the movie. She comes across as more of a protective mama-bear, though, rather than a hardened cowboy type whose sex was just reversed. She has frontier smarts and can expertly and courageously wield a hunting rifle, and gives far better than she gets in this movie. As I sit and try to think about what makes her seem like a feminine type instead of a masculine type like Hannah, I have to admit it’s difficult. Sure, she was just minding her own business until her family was threatened, which is easy to categorize as mama bear imagery. But I don’t know that that couldn’t just as easily be a description of a masculine hero too. I’m sure the fact that she’s pregnant contributes to my view of her as a distinctly feminine kind of protector, but I don’t know if I can articulate it more than that.

I’m reminded of the Harmony Korine movie Spring Breakers, which sticks in my memory as a harrowing but riveting experience. In it, three young women leave a trail of physical and mental destruction on those they encounter. We’re introduced to them as normal, unassuming college students who end up robbing a restaurant in a shockingly violent way. It is so unexpectedly brutal that I found myself feeling somehow more disturbed than if it had been a group of young men had committing the same actions, but again, it’s a challenge to say exactly why. Was the violence of women somehow more terrifying than that of men by virtue of it being rarer and therefore more unpredictable? Or does it just make me more uncomfortable because I’ve got some idea that women are less likely to commit violent crimes and it goes against my preconceptions? I’m still not entirely sure. But I love that Spring Breakers makes me confront that question.

I doubt Those Who With Me Dead will join Spring Breakers as one of my reference movies on the difference between men and women on screen. Would it have been better with a man in Hannah’s role? It’s not as clear, and at the same time that choice probably had a bigger bearing on the success of this movie than it did in Without Remorse.

In any case, these two movies are the first and only two Sheridan movies I don’t consider essential. Not necessarily bad, but I don’t feel the need to add them to my library. Here’s hoping that, although this diversion into adapting other source material gave us the chance to think about men vs women in certain movies, Taylor Sheridan gets back to writing originals in the future.

From → Movies

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