Those Who Wish Me Dead continues Taylor Sheridan’s mission to bring westerns into the 21st century. Having begun his writing career with the one-two punch of modern classics Sicario and Hell or High Water, he continued his streak of neo-westerns with his directorial debut Wind River before creating (along with writing and directing a number of episodes of) the Paramount Network’s Yellowstone series as well as penning the sequel to Sicario. Now he’s made another movie that firmly fits in with his pet themes of the untamable American wilderness, family, honor, and of course violence. Sadly, it’s his least interesting movie yet.
Those Who Wish Me Dead begins quickly, and perhaps with a bit too much style, in a dream sequence that immediately clues the audience into the trauma of fire lookout tower stationed smokejumper Hannah (Angelina Jolie) before introducing assassins Jack (Aidan Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, doing his best to play against type and actually be intimidating), who are tracking down whistleblower accountant Owen (Jake Weber).
While it takes a bit to get your footing in the story because the movie hits the ground running, this also means that there’s no expository build up or really any sort of first act so much as there are brief character introductions. When Owen learns of the assassins, he immediately takes his son Connor (Finn Little) on the road from their Florida home to stay with his deputy sheriff brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal) in Montana. I won’t spoil exactly how, though you can likely guess, Hannah and Connor end up together on the run from the assassins, with Ethan and his wife Allison (Medina Senghore) caught in the middle.
From here the film becomes a taut cat and mouse thriller, with the groups intersecting and separating in various combinations that allow Sheridan to create some brutally gripping sequences. The best of which involves a makeshift flamethrower and cements Allison as one of the most memorable secondary characters I’ve seen in a film in years.
What’s perhaps most commendable about the movie is the way that these characters find their way into your heart through what are overwhelmingly action and plot beats. This is of course in part due to the writing (which perhaps ironically is lacking in the more introspective scenes), but what really makes this work are the performances. Bernthal is fantastic as always, Senghore is almost certainly on the top of every casting director’s list after her turn here, and Jolie shows that she’s still a movie star who can carry a film on her own if she has to, luckily she doesn’t have to here.
And yet, the movie’s greatest failure is also what makes it so captivating. The somewhat dense and blistering plotting makes Those Who Wish Me Dead a thrilling ride from start to finish, but it doesn’t leave much time for consideration or exploration of the themes at play. Of course westerns have run the gamut from thoughtful epics to b-movies delivering cheap thrills throughout their existence as a film genre, but it’s a bit disappointing to see the man who has been called “this century’s John Ford” create something that feels more like a well-made airport thriller adaptation than any of his previous simultaneously thoughtful and thrilling work.
But that’s exactly what this is, based on the book of the same name by Michael Koryta and written with Koryta and Charles Leavitt, it’s the first script that Sheridan has adapted and the first he hasn’t written on his own, something that I hope he gives up after this.
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A fast pace, brutal action, and fantastic performances can’t save Those Who Wish Me Dead from feeling like more than a well-made airport thriller adaptation.
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