I find it impossible to talk about Taylor Sheridan’s work without discussing the Western genre as a whole. For better or worse the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water and writer/director of Wind River has represented the traditionalists throughout the Western’s recent resurgence, a position he doesn’t seem to shy away from. His films are consistently about troubled, violent people in the expanse of the American West, which in modern parlance is a stand-in for the empty promise of America. The latter idea is what connects and perhaps explains the resurgence of the genre, but Sheridan’s rough and tumble take, while more similar to the heyday of John Wayne and gunslingers of his ilk, has fallen behind the Kelly Reichardt-led style of quiet, contemplative mourning. Her Meek’s Cutoff, Certain Women, and First Cow (to name a few), Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider and Nomadland have asserted themselves as some of cinema’s best offerings, all chewing quietly on promises that either never were or are no more.
But Sheridan continues on with his violent tales, trying to hold on to his place in spite of the steadily decreasing quality of his work. Wind River showed his faults, which put the onus on Those Who Wish Me Dead, which he directed and co-wrote, to reassert him as a leader in his corner of the genre. Once again it shows that he knows the beats, but this lackluster entry takes him further away from the incisive commentary the genre has embraced.
Adapted from the book of the same name by co-writer Michael Koryta, the movie succeeds in trimming itself down into a lean thriller, but you feel that trim in every rushed bit of exposition and deflated character pairing. It’s still intact enough to see the areas where you’re supposed to care: the sweet relationship between cop and survival school leader, the haunted motivation behind a smokejumper’s care for a lost boy, and the shadowy men who drop into their lives to wreak havoc. But outside of the basic setup nothing is expanded on or explored, the tantalizing possibilities lost in the haze of a generic thriller.
Take the intrepid smokejumper Hannah played by Angelina Jolie as a test case. Ostensibly she is the main character, one ripped right out of Westerns of old. A tough, brazen sort who parachutes into fires as her job, she’s seen things that would shake anyone and has the scars to prove it. But the job is what she knows and what she’s good at, so she stays on even after a failed psych eval puts her in a fire tower for a semi-time out.
What should follow is bottled up torment, her demons pushing her to run inadvertently into the one thing that could bring absolution: a boy in dire straits who needs her particular skills. Instead, her storyline falls prey to the movie’s scattered chess board, which requires everyone to stay in roughly the same area so they can eventually collide. Restrained as she is from instigating forward movement, she gets wrapped up in set piece after set piece involving storms and fires that look cool but leaves the pair spinning their wheels, hardly making her a competent savior. In fact, the closest we get to that is Medina Senghore’s Allison, the survival school leader who happens to be pregnant but is still very capable of fending off assassins. The quagmire leaves no room for a punishing grind (although there are a lot of injuries) and the climax oddly doesn’t depend on Hannah’s skill set. It’s a big mishit that leaves the movie without a heart and soul, and it’s a structural fault that no actor, even one of Jolie’s caliber, can make up for.
Where the movie instead decides to spend much of its time is on the titular people who wish them dead, aka the mysterious assassins trying to take out anyone with knowledge of a corrupt businessman, who are played with appropriate soberness by Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult. Having not read the book, I can’t say whether this fascination with the wreakers of havoc over the complicated souls caught up in their ambivalence is a holdover issue or not (the title indicates that it might be), but it’s definitely one that should have been identified while adapting.
The allure of this duo to Sheridan and his team is quite obvious: the two are methodical and ruthless, in many ways an embodiment of what they made the film into. In stripping away (or not building upon) the character beats and the hanging existential dread, they produced a lean, mean little thriller, one that satisfies in the moment but ultimately builds to nothing. There’s hints that there’s more to this descent into the volatile American West, but unlike so many of its contemporaries, and Sheridan’s earlier work, for that matter, Those Who Wish Me Dead isn’t interested in exploring any of it.
Release: currently available in theaters and on HBO Max
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writers: Taylor Sheridan, Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, and Medina Senghore