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Those Who Wish Me Dead

A quick refresher, for those still unfamiliar with Taylor Sheridan. As a screenwriter, Sheridan made his breakthrough with the script for the overrated Sicario before going on to write the tragically underrated Hell or High Water, and then made his directing debut with Wind River. More recently, Sheridan has gone into television, writing/producing “The Last Cowboy” and “Yellowstone” for Paramount+.

When you see Sheridan’s name on a project, you know you’re getting a morally ambiguous crime thriller with a conservative blue-collar sensibility, set in the open wilderness, and a lot of people chasing each other with guns. I’d be genuinely interested to see what Sheridan could do with adaptations of “No Country for Old Men” or “True Grit” — wouldn’t be anywhere near as great as what the Coens did with the same material, but I’m sure it’d be a good watch all the same.

True to form, Those Who Wish Me Dead — the latest from director/co-writer Sheridan — is primarily set in the backwoods of Montana. (The film was actually shot in New Mexico, by the way.) The plot kicks off with Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant in Florida who’s uncovered evidence of some vague unspecified criminal activity involving vague unnamed powerful criminals.

Long story short, Owen picks up his son (Connor, played by Finn Little) and the two go running until Owen is killed by a couple of hitmen (Jack and Patrick, respectively played by Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) and Connor escapes.

The two were heading to meet up with Owen’s brother-in-law (Ethan, played by Jon Bernthal), a sheriff’s deputy who runs a survival training camp in Montana with his wife (Allison, played by Medina Senghore). When things go sideways and Connor runs away from the hitmen who killed his dad, he’s unwittingly intercepted by Hannah (Angelina Jolie), who just happens to be Ethan’s ex-girlfriend.

To make another long story short, Hannah is a veteran smokejumper with a bad case of PTSD from her last forest fire. And she’s been coping with the guilt by way of heavy drinking, thrill-seeking, etc. As a direct result, Hannah’s been exiled to a watchtower out in the sticks until she can get her head on straight. Unfortunately, right when Connor falls into her lap and our hitmen start a massive forest fire to distract law enforcement, the Plot Convenience Fairy fries the tower’s comm system with a lightning strike.

Setting all this up takes roughly half the movie. And true to Sheridan’s style, a whole lot of time is taken up with character beats that don’t really go anywhere, but at least they’re nicely delivered and they help us form a connection with the characters. The better to shock and surprise us when awful things happen to them.

The flip-side is that when the action does happen, it comes hot and heavy. There are some genuinely great shoot-outs and standoffs to be found in here. The tension is palpable from start to finish, and the dialogue is superbly written as well. The scenery itself is dynamic, beautifully shot and cleverly used for action sequences, chase scenes, etc.

Perhaps most importantly, the forest fire itself is very explicitly presented as an indiscriminate force that destroys everything in its path. It is at once a symbol of nature and of death. I can’t imagine a better summation of Tyler Sheridan’s filmography.

With all of that being said, it is rather peculiar where the filmmakers decided to put most of the character development and where they decided to cut corners. A particular example would be Boots Southerland, who brings a great deal of personality and charisma to the character of Ethan’s boss, the local sheriff. And for all that, the character might as well have been left on the cutting room floor.

Conversely, we never learn the first thing about the criminal conspiracy at play here or who wants Owen and Connor dead. Not that we particularly need that information, as the more personal life-or-death stakes are enough to keep the plot moving. But when Jack and Patrick’s employers are personified by Tyler Perry in a speaking cameo role, I can only shake my head. For one thing, the exchange tells us precisely nothing. For another thing, it’s Tyler freaking Perry playing the head of a mercenary syndicate! Perry has put too much effort for too long a time into making himself internationally known as a likeable guy — he just can’t pull this off.

Still, at least that one speaking cameo role is the major weak link in an otherwise solid cast. It certainly helps that we’re following smart and capable characters, and I was relieved to see that not a one of them was ever presented as infallible or invulnerable (see: Jeremy Renner’s character in Wind River). Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult both look like they’re having fun, Jon Bernthal is playing squarely in his established wheelhouse, and Angelina Jolie seems dead-set on proving that she could still play Lara Croft if she really wanted to. But the unsung hero here is easily Finn Little, turning in a dynamic performance as the film’s MacGuffin.

Yet for all the extended character beats and the lengthy setup involved in getting all the pieces where they need to be, this really is a movie all about simplicity. The conflict is straightforward, the stakes are clear, and everyone’s motivation is perfectly known. This is a 100-minute movie, and that’s exactly as long as this plot needed to be.

The unfortunate downside is that there’s nothing new here. It kinda works as a salute to the firefighters keeping us safe from forest fires, but this movie only skims the surface — Only the Brave went into much greater detail and did a far better job of that. Hannah gets a boilerplate redemption arc without anything new in terms of theme. There might have been a kind of connection between Connor (now an orphan) and Ethan (who’s got a baby girl on the way), if only the filmmakers ever thought to try anything with it.

Come to think of it, for how exciting and tense the action scenes were, everything ended up more or less exactly as I would’ve guessed at the halfway point. In particular, the filmmakers resorted to some pretty drastic convolutions to get everything wrapped up nice and tidy. This would be especially glaring to anyone who’s lived through recent fires (like the entire freaking West Coast, for example) who knows for a fact that forest fires wouldn’t burn themselves out nearly so quickly.

The bottom line is, Those Who Wish Me Dead perfectly demonstrates the principle that if you’re not doing anything new, then you’d damn well better be doing it right. It’s a streamlined no-frills crime thriller that delivers action, tension, and capable performers doing what they do best. It does the job, nothing more and nothing less. At 100 minutes long, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Free of cost (with an HBO Max subscription), it’s more than worth the admission price.

For a pre-summer palate cleanser, I’d say it’s worth a look.

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