By Peter Hummers on February 17, 2022
In 2015 Texan actor Taylor Sheridan wrapped up work on Sons of Anarchy when it ended after seven seasons and decided to pursue “storytelling.” After helping a friend direct a “bad horror movie,” he turned in screenplays for drug-war drama Sicario, and then Hell or High Water, about financial ruin in West Texas. He completed his trilogy about “the modern-day American frontier” with Wind River, which he also directed, about “the most tangible remnant of America’s frontier, and America’s greatest failure—the Native American reservation.”
When he teamed up in 2018 with John Linson to create the TV series Yellowstone [Stream On column], he had a smash hit on his hands. Yellowstone‘s fourth season opened with a flashback to 1893, which so impressed the studio that they ordered a prequel series, to be aired by the end of 2021.
For any television series, let alone one put together on the fast track, 1883 is striking in every regard. It opens as a teenaged blonde girl awakens near a burning wagon to a chaotic Indian attack on the Great Plains. Seeing a brave approaching on horseback, she pulls a revolver from a nearby corpse and fires at him. We hear her narration, as in a dream:
“I remember the first time I saw it. Tried to find words to describe it. But I couldn’t. Nothing had prepared me. No books. No teachers. Not even my parents. I heard a thousand stories… But none could describe this place. It must be witnessed to be understood. And yet, I’ve seen it. And I understand it less than when I first cast eyes on this place.
“Some called it the American Desert. Others, the Great Plains. But those phrases were invented by professors at universities. Surrounded by the illusion of order. And the fantasy of right and wrong. To know it, you must walk. Bleed until it’s dark. Drown in its rivers. Then its name becomes clear. It is Hell.”
After the credits roll, we meet Civil War veteran Captain Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott, Justified et al, in yet another career-topping role), sobbing on his front porch on the edge of those plains. He goes into the house and collects his daughter’s body, taking it upstairs to place next on his wife’s body, on their bed. We see they have died of smallpox. He leaves the house burning like the wagon in the first scene, sits on the ground and puts his revolver up to his chin as his partner, Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), a Buffalo soldier, approaches.
We meet James Dutton (Tim McGraw), racing a wagon full of supplies hell-bent for leather as he evades bandits, and picking off not a few with a rifle before the rest retreat.
1883 is the story of a westward wagon train, led on hire by Brennan and Thomas, comprising a clutch of tenderfoot German immigrant families, accompanied also by the wagon of James Dutton, the great-great grandfather of Yellowstone‘s patriarch John Dutton. Dutton’s wife (Faith Hill) and two children, and his sister and her daughter, join James in Fort Worth after arriving by train. In spite of the gorgeous scenery, the tale is a brutal one. The wagon train is surrounded by malevolent flora, fauna, predators, hostile natives and bad actors. The pioneers succumb gradually to misadventure in spite of the best efforts of Brennan, Thomas, a couple of professional cowboys, and Dutton, who has agreed to help in return for the company of the train.
Dutton’s daughter, Elsa (Isabel May), from the original scene, narrates poetically; she’s an adventurous girl with a poetic and romantic turn of mind, who overcomes her initial shock to embrace the challenge.
“Death hides in creek beds. Possesses animals. It hides in tall grass, waiting. With every death, our father moved camp a little further away. As if death was not the result of accidents and disease, but death was its own disease. And carelessness was contagious.
“I had abandoned every memory of Tennessee as if I was born on this journey. But I wasn’t. We were leaving a place, and seeking another. And the journey was a necessary, miserable road between the two. Somehow I felt immune to the dangers of this place. As if the land and I had struck a deal. I could pass on heart so long as I loved it. And I did. I loved everything about it.
“But crossing the Brazos [river] taught me there was no deal. No matter how much we love it, the land will never love us back.”
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.”
FBI Special Agents Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a raid on a suspected Sonora Cartel safe house where they discover dozens of decaying corpses, in Sicario. Outside, a booby trap bomb kills two police officers assisting with the raid. Following the raid, Kate’s boss recommends her for a Department of Justice and Department of Defense Joint Task Force overseen by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the secretive Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Assured that the task force has been set up to apprehend Sonora Cartel lieutenant Manuel Díaz and to bring to justice those responsible for the safe-house incident, Kate joins the operation.
She’s shuttled around during the meetings, and becomes apprehensive when the plans unfold. Graver deflects when she asks which agency he works for, and Gillick is polite but nonresponsive when she tries to chat him up.
When the balloon goes up, she’s appalled. She is told to stay with Gillick during the operation, but separates herself and when the smoke clears, she makes a stand for the rule of law, which she believes has not been followed, to put it mildly.
Why was she chosen to go along on this operation? And above all, who is Alejandro? One of the film’s taglines is “In Mexico, sicario means hitman.”
“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”
Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), living rough on a moribund ranch in West Texas, rob rural banks in Hell or High Water. They are deceptively smart about it. They have a plan. They go in first thing, when few or no customers are there and only take cash from the tellers’ drawers, after which they take to a stolen car for a getaway. They change cars if they need to, leaving others parked on their escape route. (They bury the cars at their ranch after use.)
Two veteran Texas Rangers (Gil Birmingham, Yellowstone, Wind River, and Jeff Bridges) drive around, low-key investigating, trying to predict where they will hit next, and wait for the robbers in restaurants and coffee shops. They are almost as passive as Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, until a cascading series of events results in a showdown.
“Luck don’t live out here.”
Wind River opens similarly to, while different than, 1883. Here, a teenaged Native girl flees, barefoot, on the snowy plains, before collapsing.
Professional hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds the girl’s corpse while tracking wolves on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming for a Native rancher. The tribal police call in an FBI agent, and Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives from Las Vegas to investigate. (The FBI has jurisdiction on the reservations.) She knows she’s unprepared, but to what degree she has no idea. She must ride post on Lambert’s snowmobile three hours just to reach the body.
Lambert and the tribal police chief (Graham Greene, Longmire) convince Banner that she’s “it.” “This isn’t the land of backup. This is the land of you’re on your own.” When Lambert advises her that you don’t hunt wolves by looking where they might be, but by looking where they’ve been, she hires him to help her hunt the killer.
Yellowstone, 1883, and these movies all have a similar look—cinematography that emphasises the vast open spaces in which they’re shot with incredible detail, and scenery that might have come from Alfred Bierstadt (who emigrated as a child with his family from Germany in 1831). The plots are about as complicated as real life; there are guns—and gunplay, and signature aerial shots of lines of autos, SUV’s, snowmobiles and Conestoga wagons snaking through forests, cities, and wide-open spaces.
And there are meditations on family, growth, sexism, racism, manifest destiny, the nature of man and his place in nature, man-made borders, and above all, the land. If you like Yellowstone and haven’t seen these, you have some treats coming.
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)
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