NICHOLAS CHANG | REPEAT OFFENDERS
Those Who Wish Me Dead will make you wish you stayed at home and watched a 90s action thriller instead. Taylor Sheridan has become a renowned writer-director, best known for penning the scripts of Sicario and Hell or High Water and his "self-proclaimed" directorial debut Wind River. All of these are neo-Western genre films aimed to capture and dissect the values of contemporary America. Although Sheridan has a keen, pulpy vision for Those Who Wish Me Dead, his latest script unfortunately reflects a misstep in his career.
Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a smokejumper recently posted at a fire lookout tower, who is traumatised by the deaths of several people in a forest fire she was unable to prevent. Meanwhile, forensic accountant Owen Casserly (Jake Weber) finds out his boss and family have been murdered by assassins Jake and Patrick Blackwell (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, respectively). He goes on the run with his son Conner (Finn Little) to seek refuge with his brother-in-law and sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal). However, after being ambushed and murdered by the Blackwells, Conner escapes with evidence against the Blackwells’ employer and mob boss, Arthur Phillip (Tyler Perry), and crosses paths with Hannah. After reluctantly siding with her, Hannah must protect Conner and get themselves to town, only to cross paths with a forest fire created by the Blackwells.
Those Who Wish Me Dead starts with a solid setup of its main storylines, and it clearly aims to be a throwback to action thrillers from the 90s. Unfortunately, the film is trapped with a plot in absolute conflict with itself. As the film is based on Michael Koryta's novel of the same name, it appears something was lost in translation from book to movie. We have multiple storylines fighting for the most attention: Hannah and Conner finding their way towards town, the Blackwell brothers on the hunt, and the evidence that Conner holds against Phillip. The real issue that emerges isn't how generic the plot feels but that there is no resolution to be gained from the experience. Rather than the script (written by Sheridan, Koryta and Charles Leavitt) offering any depth to the plot, it instead leaves behind a blazing trail of illogical and unanswered questions. Since Those Who Wish Me Dead is unsure which route it wants to take with its plot, its pace meanders within the first hour. Consequently, audiences won't just be struggling to suspend disbelief; they'll be losing interest before reaching the underwhelming conclusion.
It doesn't help that the script struggles to build its characters effectively. Hannah is the only character given enough of a backstory, which provides sufficient depth but doesn't always flesh out her character. Nevertheless, Jolie's role is effectively brought to life, and her interactions with Little were enough to make the performances watchable. However, after the first act, the relationship between Hannah and Conner lacks believable progress, which can be attributed to inconsistent writing. Take this for example: earlier in the film, Casserly gives his son evidence against Phillip through an envelope and advises that it be given to someone Conner can trust. Soon afterwards, Hannah finds Conner, who runs away, unsure what to do, and when she catches up to him, he fights her off until he's told town is too far away. Almost immediately after Conner has to stay with Hannah, he gives her the envelope. It's at this head-scratching character decision that we begin to question the plausibility of the characters, and no matter how strong the performances by Jolie and Little are, they cannot salvage the poorly written material of their characters.
The film's most compelling characters are its central villains, Jake and Patrick Blackwell, and thanks to intimidatingly powerful performances by Gillen and Hoult, they genuinely represent themselves as real threats. Both of them share the same motivations and are determined to fulfil their mission, no matter how many innocent lives have to be killed. It is this storyline that grabbed my interest more than any of the other characters. One character who does have a surprisingly relevant role in the plot is Ethan's pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore). Halfway through the film, she's revealed to be smart, resourceful, and even fights back against her threats, and this highlights the character-driven potential of Those Who Wish Me Dead. It is a shame that the script isn't sure how to develop its characters or make them three-dimensional, and as loose ties aren't fully resolved, most of the character stakes aren't entirely justified. Even Tyler Perry’s character is given only one scene and then he isn’t mentioned for the rest of the film. What gives?
What enlivens Those Who Wish Me Dead is Taylor Sheridan's direction. He always has a sharp vision for neo-Westerns and knows how to let the action unfold well. He doesn't shy away from the brutal nature of the plot, and every violent act, whether it be a gunshot, a beating or a burning, conveys an impact. The harsh brutality is further sharpened by Sheridan's focus on the Montana wilderness, captured in its beauty by Ben Richardson's cinematography, and the symbolic utilisation of the forest fire. The fire is unrelenting and does not care about the morality of the characters. It will devour everything in its path, and its dangers are indeed signified in the third act, where the wilderness turns into an utter, living hell.
However, it appears Sheridan wants to convey the realism of the film's grim setting, which conflicts with the plot holes and character inconsistencies of the overall script, and the style is squandered by an emphasis on CGI fire and greenscreen. Although Sheridan tries hard to envision the intensity of Those Who Wish Me Dead, the presentation is set back by a rather dull first hour and a poorly edited plot that had me regularly checking my watch. Although things get exciting by the climax, it does not offer enough to reward viewers' patience and frustration.
In the end, Those Who Wish Me Dead suffers from its inability to provide a complete and focused plot, squandering all of its potential, and the end result is a mess that goes increasingly downhill. Taylor Sheridan's sharp directorial vision is enough to sustain the film's entertainment value, and the central performances do their best with the material. If you can push aside the shortcomings of the visual effects, Those Who Wish Me Dead excels with its gorgeously shot locations and production values. It simply can't make up for the frustratingly inconsistent writing, and in the end, Those Who Wish Me Dead just leads to meaningless pulp. Sadly Sheridan's weakest effort to date, and hopefully doesn't mark the beginning of his directing career in decline.