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Directed and co-written by Taylor Sheridan (director of Wind River and writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water), Those Who Wish Me Dead stars Angelina Jolie as veteran fire warden Hannah Faber who has to protect a young boy named Connor (Finn Little) from assassins (Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult) who killed the boy’s father. Hannah uses her survival training and knowledge of the Montana wilderness to her advantage, while the local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) tries to stop the assassins from finding Hannah and the boy.
With his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water and his double-duty efforts on Wind River, Taylor Sheridan set himself apart as a writer-director to be on the lookout for. He particularly specialises in stories about emotionally defensive and hardened characters who try to do the right thing despite mountains of scrutiny and violence that disturbs their progress. Things were looking high and wonderful after 2017 but haven’t exactly worked in this writer’s mind since then. I haven’t seen Yellowstone so I can’t count that, but Sicario: Day of the Soldado built on such incredible promise from the first film but landed with a dull thud. The dark wit and rich themes that had defined Sheridan’s previous work was absent in a long, dry and flat sequel to a great film, something which didn’t change with Amazon Prime’s latest release Without Remorse. Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima and Sheridan reunited to make this year’s Tom Clancy adaptation with Michael B. Jordan which had promise but is mostly another tiresome and cliché-ridden affair that has no wit or thematic intrigue at play.
This downward spiral of unexceptional qualities continues with Sheridan’s second effort as a director: Those Who Wish Me Dead.
We have a rather standard Sheridan protagonist: Jolie’s Hannah is a hardened and tortured veteran of saving lives in dangerous situations but can’t shake the trauma of that one time she couldn’t save people. She’s self-destructive and emotionally implosive yet keeps a keen eye out for doing the right thing, and is terrifically capable of surviving the most dangerous elements. Her task is simple, evoking a Western trope of a lost child orphaned by violence, out on the run in the wild from criminals eliminating all witnesses. Throw in a sheriff and a hundred bullets and you have what should be a great neo-Western like Hell or High Water or Logan.
What we have in the end is another tired and stereotypical action thriller that features a great cast playing characters that lack development. Each one is played by great actors of superb skill performing ably with the action and drama required, but they all have set-up and no payoff. Most feel like they could have died a scene or two earlier and have it make more sense. It’s a specific criticism, I know, but it feels as if the movie has built up to a terrible moment of heart-stopping drama only for major conveniences to race in and drag it all out. By the final action sequence, you feel rather worn out and impatient.
And then there’s the plot. Sheridan is adapting Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name, with Koryta and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In the Heart of the Sea, Warcraft), which has Hannah’s story of dealing with her trauma, workplace scrutiny and the worry of Jon Bernthal’s sheriff compete for screen-time with Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult playing mysterious assassins hunting down and killing dozens of people all for something. I’m not making a joke, the assassins are trying to retrieve a lanyard disc thing of some kind that has some meaning that is never revealed.
So not only are there two competing storylines that intersect poorly along the halfway point and spread the story far too thin, but then there’s a MacGuffin at the centre. Sheridan doesn’t even play with the idea of having a MacGuffin at the centre of the plot in a subversive way. We could have had attention drawn to its uselessness and meaningless but it just exists as a way to keep the plot moving, nothing else. The assassins are trying to kill witnesses to some kind of corruption in business or politics, but I don’t know. The movie refuses to make it clear and we’re left frustrated by half the attention dedicated to meaningless plot details.
Hannah Faber is an interesting character with a lot of room to grow and develop across the story, but at times the movie forgets about her in favour of diverting attention to Connor and his Dad (Jake Weber) on the run, the assassins planning their next move, or Jon Bernthal’s sheriff and his wife (Medina Senghore) and their involvement in the story (which is little to say the least). It’s an unfocused screenplay that screams of hasty rewrites or little-to-no communication between the writers.
Sheridan helms the film well enough, shooting the action sequences in clean and efficient shots that are visually intelligible, a testament to good cinematography and editing by Ben Richardson and Chad Galster, respectively. Richardson was Sheridan’s DP on Wind River and gives Those Who Wish Me Dead a rich look with anamorphic lenses and highly-saturated colour timing, leaning closer to Roger Deakins’ work on Sicario or Richardson’s own work on Beasts of the Southern Wild.
I was at times struck with how long it had been since I’d seen Angelina Jolie in a live-action role beyond Maleficent movies, the sequel of which I would like expunged from my memory as soon as possible. Her last mainstream leading role in something other than animation or fantasy was The Tourist in 2010, so it feels like a while. She’s great here, committed to the emotional complexities of the character and open to playing a flawed person with a lot to overcome.
Jon Bernthal also does well in an expanded role from his usual “5 minutes or less” roles in dozens of movies over the last 10 years, as is Medina Senghore, whose career has mostly been TV work on Happy! and Blindspot. Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult are believably menacing, but a definite standout is Finn Little whose emotional depth is quite extraordinary. Hopefully that kid gets more work because he deserves it.
All in all, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a respectable thriller that has decent performances throughout and enough visual flair to keep you engaged, particularly the fiery finale, but I found it struggled to keep me engaged on a plot and story level. It feels unfocused and messy most of the time, lacking the exceptional quality of Taylor Sheridan’s earlier works as a writer and director. It’s not a long movie at 100 minutes but feels excessive, like this should have been a tight 90 minute thriller with a cleaner and more streamlined story. It might satisfy fans of neo-Westerns who’ll enjoy anything in that sub-genre, but Those Who Wish Me Dead isn’t something to remember past June.
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writer: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult
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