Charles Dickens wasn’t simply a writer. He was a celebrity. His books were serialised, published in monthly instalments to a public desperate to know what happened next. Newspaper headlines screamed the news of characters’ deaths. When he gave public readings of his work, it was the hottest ticket in town. All this is not simply explained by his brilliant storytelling and the lack of technology to distract people from books as the dominant media of the day. Whilst this clearly contributed to his remarkable success, there’s something more important as all that to take into consideration. He understood what was happening in the England of his day better than anyone else. His work told the story of a society of alarming gaps between rich and poor. The rich lived in cloistered ignorance and the poor – where they were able to work – were cogs in the industrial machine. The country’s cities were chaotic, frightening places. In this chaotic milieu of a country – which . many historians will testify was teetering on the brink of violent revolution – Dickens found his voice. Crucially, he found and became the voice of the desperate poor; and presented to the cossetted rich a way of being that invited something better. He spoke of people crushed beneath the wheels of systems designed to grease the palms of the already rich and keep the already poor that way. His stories spoke of facts, but of deeper truths also.
Artists are so often the weather-vanes of a culture, and if we listen well to them then there is much to learn. It’s not new to say that major Westernised countries are experiencing frightening political and social convulsions. This isn’t the space to analyse that in detail, but there are similarities with Dickens’ England. New technologies are putting the old working-classes out of work; gaps between rich and poor are growing; add to the mix the complexities of mass migration and we have a toxic, angry cocktail emboldening extremism at both ends of the political spectrum. It’s said of economics that if America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. Well, the current infection is more than a cold and America seems much more sick than simply a sneeze.
So to whom do we go to try to understand how we got here, and what we might do next? There are many contenders, of course; and culture is much more fragmented than the one Dickens spoke in to. There are few – if any – unifying voices. Of the voices I hear and can manage a level of understanding of, the films of writer-director Taylor Sheridan might provide some insight. His trio of films from 2015 to 2017 Sicario, Hell Or High Water, Wind River (he wrote all three and directed the middle one) give voice to stories we all need to hear. Each of them are American crime stories of various types; each (like Dickens) manage to tell their stories with economy and excitement, never drowning beneath a weight of self-important worthiness. Like Dickens, these stories also recognise the milieu into which they’re speaking: the cocktail of drugs and immigration on the Mexican border, a disenfranchised and economically disempowered working class, Native American populations uncounted and unprotected (Wind River, which I watched last night, ends with a devastating piece of on-screen text: Native American women are the only American people group for whom missing person statistics aren’t kept; no one knows how many of them are missing). Women in patriarchal contexts are a particular focus of this trio of films
Technically, each film is dazzling and at times brilliant. Roger Deakins – widely seen as the greatest living cinematographer – shoots Sicario with a wide-screen beauty that has seared images into my mind in a still fresh way 3 years later. The snowscapes of Wind River are retina-scorching, brilliantly played against the night-time scenes which seem somehow darkened and sparkling at the same time. In one brilliantly realised moment in Wind River, character knock on a door; we cut behind the door to a character walking to the door to answer – and we realise we’re now reliving the events that took place behind that door from a couple of days ago. Events play out … and we cut back to outside, and the closed-door, in the present day.
In all the technical and storytelling brilliance of these three films, there is no sense of the privileged presenting a solution; that would be to compound the problem. What Taylor Sheridan is doing is allowing stories to be heard to which the cossetted rich have failed to pay attention as they stay in the illusion of secluded security. The stories are compelling and urgent; the gridlock of the Mexican-American border gives startling rise to an unbearable tense traffic jam in Sicario; in each film, when violence erupts (and none of the films are relentlessly violent, but it’s rumbling constantly beneath the surface of each) we know who each person is, the forces that have driven them there and what they think they need. We’re emotionally invested, and the lines between good and bad are blurred, running through each fractured person rather than the simple delineations of black and white hats (though all three films owe something to the traditions of Western movies).
It’s perhaps too simple to say that these films tell us everything; but it’s also true to say that if Jesus could communicate eternal truth in a parable, then we would do well to listen to the story-tellers whose voices are saying things we need to here. Like Dickens, it is Taylor Sheridan’s gift to do so in stories that grip, engage and move; there are other voices, of course. But here is one who is telling stories that help us listen to what the alienated voices of Trump’s America may be saying. He who has ears, let him hear.