Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan's latest feels like an early rough draft
Taylor Sheridan has specialized in making modern westerns. He broke out big with his dark screenplay in Sicario (2015) and has become a creative juggernaut both directing films like Wind River (2017) and creating cable’s most watched show in Yellowstone (2018-). The American filmmaker has returned to the big screen in partnership with the elusive Angelina Jolie in Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021).
Those Who Wish Me Dead takes place primarily in the Montana wilderness. Hannah (Jolie) is a forest firefighter, on a long shift in a remote fire-watch tower. She’s saddled with guilt from her work in past forest fires and is forced to confront it in her seclusion. Parallel to her story is a kid, Connor (Finn Little) on the run with some crucial information from two hitmen, Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aiden Gillen). Inevitably, Hannah and Connor’s paths collide.
Sheridan has been able to spin his take on modern westerns with general originality. Yet perhaps his commitment to producing many hours of content in Yellowstone has worn down the creative juices. Those Who Wish Me Dead feels like it was created in a fatigued and contrived manner. There are still great elements and moments that would have made even Sergio Leone envious; one particular scene of two characters surviving a forest fire by waiting it out submerged in a creek, coming up only to draw air. However, the stitching of different elements and the character work appear shoddy.
The majority of Those Who Wish Me Dead feels like an elongated set-up. When Connor and Hannah, are finally together, however, they are largely forgotten as the film focuses on the perspectives of the hitmen and a policeman (Jon Bernthal). Sheridan clearly was more interested in this story arc, which begs the question of why he didn’t pivot the film’s perspective. Sheridan’s particular disinterest in the protagonists can be noticed in the writing of Hannah, whose traumatic past is her only characteristic. In fact, viewers might have been completely indifferent to Hannah had she not been played by a celebrity like Jolie. Similarly, Connor is largely written as a one-note character; Little does well in his performance yet is largely constrained to sniveling and crying.
This abandonment of the core storyline leaves a gaping hole in overall the structure and flow of the narrative. Those Who Wish Me Dead almost seems to be missing its entire second act; this largely due to the amount of attention paid in elongating the set-up. As a result we jump from our characters starting to realize the paths they must go on, to the resolution. This robs characters of forming a relationship and showcasing the arcs and lessons that they are to learn. The finale, thus, doesn’t impact viewers since we really don’t know who the characters are.
In the end, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a film that signals creative fatigue from Sheridan. The entire film gives off the air of a rough draft rather than a star vehicle for the likes of Jolie. The hurried writing around the protagonists, and a distracting focus on set up and supporting characters makes for an unfocused and rather forgetful film.