‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ is here to announce Taylor Sheridan has arrived

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

6/10 The subtlest but most telling mark of a well-directed film is that that air of relaxation you get in the hands of a story that’s confident in its own telling. Those Who Wish Me Dead is writer/director/producer Taylor Sheridan’s sixth feature script and second time in the director’s chair. He’s been a rising star for a long time, able to make movies that are distinctively his even when he only writes them and already with his own prestige television series in Yellowstone.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida- Father-son duo of hitmen Jack and Patrick Blackwell (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) assassinate an attorney general. Four and a half hours north in Jacksonville, forensic accountant Owen Casserly (Jake Weber), who discovered the secret that got the attorney general killed, takes his son and bolts, knowing they’ll come for him next.

Park County, Montana- Smokejumper Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie) has been assigned to watchtower duty after losing a comrade and a few campers in a fire she was in charge of fighting. In the wilderness, she encounters a boy, Connor Casserly (Finn Little), whose father has been killed by two assassins who pursued them all the way from Florida. Faber is tasked with keeping Casserly safe from both the Blackwells and the fire they’ve set to cover their tracks until Casserly can get his father’s secrets to the press.

It should be immediately obvious how weak the structure of two stories colliding is, and that’s the movie’s biggest weakness. The stories don’t gel as thematically or as obviously as they need to, and the movie feels like it’s wandering around taken as a whole. The problem seeps in as a lack of momentum and sense of low stakes. It becomes easier and easier to look away from as it goes along, somewhat less than the sum of its parts.  

But scene to scene, Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t feel like it’s wandering around even for a second. Every moment in this movie is confident, calculated and purposeful, perfectly acted and perfectly shot. Everyone is perfectly cast, everyone feels real and every action is motivated. Part of the reason the film feels like it’s going nowhere is, with one notable exception when Faber and Casserly charge through a lightning field, it never cheats to reach for a particular ending. Characters get injured and are made to deal with their injuries, and everyone behaves as though they might die if they make a wrong move. No one outshoots the odds in this movie, characters win only when they put themselves in the proper position to. Every scene feels like it ends on one of the most likely outcomes, and consequently, every scene feels like it could be the film’s last.

It’s never revealed what scandal Casserly uncovered, and in this political climate where basic reality is a partisan issue, particularly as it applies to what does and does not constitute a political scandal and particularly with this whole gory story originating in Florida, that’s not really enough.

This is a commissioned piece from Sheridan – he co-wrote it with Michael Koryta, who wrote the underlying book, and Charles Leavitt, but it’s exactly the kind of modern western he’s become associated with. His body of work is narrowly focused on western settings that still exist today and how they intersect with modern law and order. The characters are ones who can survive in both a classical western and in these modern rural settings, tech-savvy survivalists who are good with guns.

In Those Who Wish Me Dead, it’s on full display with realistic, expert gunplay that respects firearms but never romanticizes them. Everyone maintains careful trigger and fire discipline, they keep track of their ammunition, they know things that people who regularly handle guns and who view them as dangerous tools would know. So much attention is paid to the technical and practical realities of the movie’s conflict, it becomes part of what hinders any metastory from emerging, again with the exception of that lightning scene.

There’s a great effort to appreciate the beauty of the forests in southern Montana and the history of exploration in the region, but it isn’t shot the way it needs to be. It’s good to appreciate local geography and history in a film’s setting, but it isn’t really incorporated into the story, just related through dialogue.

Those Who Wish Me Dead may be one of Sheridan’s weaker showings, but it ironically cements him as an auteur – even a weak film bears his marks and interests, and even the film’s weaknesses feel distinctive.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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