Telling the story of a boy on the run who meets a fire lookout suffering from post-traumatic stress, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a slick, stripped-down thriller with a collection of solid performances, but is also a disappointingly conventional step backward for Taylor Sheridan and his neo-western style.
Over the course of the 2010s, Sheridan’s film writing made a pretty big splash in the American drama space, with incredibly tense sequences of love, hate, professionalism, and compromise. For several years, his time has been taken up writing/directing Yellowstone, so I was very excited for Sheridan’s return to the big screen in what the trailers sort of promised as Firewatch-meets-Logan. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead is equally TV-quality in its execution as Yellowstone, with a rather bland take on the kind of movie we have seen many times before.
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Theatrical)
Part of the appeal to neo-westerns like Sicario, and especially Hell or High Water, is the commitment to the bit: they are dark American stories, with Nick Cave music and occasional shocking violence. As for the characters, they are all shot through with a lack of “movieness” that provides some verisimilitude contrasting the big thriller moments.
These are strengths that Those Who Wish Me Dead shares to some extent—but its script is less authentically ragged and just functional. The story of someone on the run for knowing too much, pursued by sinister agents across a great wilderness, brings to mind late 20th century thrillers such as Cliffhanger or The River Wild; a small-scale adventure with a big threat.
Where Cliffhanger starred an over-the-top Stallone versus a psychotic Brit played by John Lithgow, Those Who Wish Me Dead provides us a more subdued cast centered around Hannah Faber—like the former film’s Gabe Walker, she failed to save someone and sees the events of the film as a kind of atonement. Unlike Gabe Walker, she is played by Angelina Jolie, and so lacks his cartoonishness.
The film’s greatest feature—positive or negative—is that lack of affectation throughout. In dialogue and presence the film’s villains, unfettered father and son assassins played by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, are the farthest from any Dogs Reservoir or Fellas Good. As far as their personalities go, they are: Killer, and Younger Killer (with a dash of “I want bad guys who try really hard to look like they aren’t making dumb bad guy decisions”).
This goes the same for fugitive Connor Casserly, played by Finn Little, and Jon Bernthal’s sheriff. All of the characters share a lack of “movie entertainment”, which would make more sense for an experience that was not a conventional Hollywood thriller. As it stands, it could have used some more colour—Sheridan is clearly the devoted neo-western genre dork that one would assume he is from Hell or High Water, but the bank robbers and rangers of that film positively sparkle by comparison.
The blocking, editing, and pace of the action in Those Who Wish Me Dead is similarly lacking in character compared to Sheridan’s “new frontier” films. Without the bleak, righteous anger that drove so much of Wind River or David Mackenzie and Denis Villeneuve’s individual talents at direction, this is a rather one-note thriller that even feels sanitized at points, something that Sicario was praised for not being.
Reliant on fast editing, shot-reverse-shot, and what must be an enormous amount of two-shots, very few sequences of Those Who Wish Me Dead seem cinematically authentic. Rather, they are constructed in the way of modern blockbusters such as the mid-tier MCU films. That is not the only major connection, either, as the film forgoes Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s mournful compositions for a Brian Tyler score which, again, makes the movie seem more Marvel than merciless.
There are great examples of “character with McGuffin outruns shadowy bad guys” movies out there, and they most often shine thanks to their excellent top-down direction. Sheridan might not be quite so engaged creatively with Those Who Wish Me Dead. As opposed to his last three screenplays, the movie was co-written with two others.
One of these co-writers is also late of Warcraft, In the Heart of the Sea and the weirdly inert fantasy adaptation Seventh Son, which suggests a kind of imaginative mediocrity that Those Who Wish Me Dead does sadly share at times. However, the film is rescued from being just plain bad by Sheridan’s talent for functional dialogue, the high bar of acting from the cast, and a few cool visual ideas in the second half.
Perhaps I was predisposed to judge the film more harshly, as it is clearly meant to be a more straight-down-the-middle thriller than the “new frontier” trilogy. But even on its own merits, Those Who Wish Me Dead could be doing a lot more with its stripped-back premise and budget. Given that directors of past generations--the John Carpenters and Wes Cravens of the world--could turn out cheaper and more exciting thrillers of similar stock, a film like Those Who Wish Me Dead comes off as unnecessary—or at worst, pandering, with its rapid cuts and its relatively empty “down-to-earth” takes on stock characters and themes.