Friday, May 14, 2021

those who wish me dead

Overlooking the generic, clunky title, Taylor Sheridan's Those Who Wish Me Dead, scripted by Sheridan, Charles Leavitt, and Michael Koryta (based upon his novel), is crackling, middlebrow Hollywood entertainment. It's perhaps wishful thinking, but in a time where the industry is at a crossroads, I do hope that this kind of mid-budget snappy thriller is churned out by the Hollywood machine more often than turgid, unengaging money-grab retreads like the recent Mortal Kombat. But given the tepid audience and box office results so far, more studio films of this type are looking unlikely unless they are slated for Netflix. As with his previous movies, Sheridan intertwines the twisty adult crime thriller with punchy action / adventure within elements of the American West. This combination makes a more cinematically impactful one in his masterful Hell or High Water or even the uneven, but occasionally fascinating Wind River; Those Who Wish Me Dead, while slick and entertaining, is more tacky and lightweight, and maybe nice for the director / writer not to have to deal with something particularly profound.

The plottish plot mixes the lives of Montana wilderness firefighters (including Angelina Jolie as a particularly self-destructive smokejumper haunted by a traumatic incident) with a D.A.'s assistant Owen (Jake Weber) and his young son, Connor (Finn Little, in an impressive turn) on the run from Florida from a murderous pair of assassins Jack (Aidan Gillen at some sinister heights) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult playing well against type). Owen knows too much about things (none of which I can really recall being materialized or become too clear in the picture) and must be killed by Jack and Patrick under orders from ruthless, budget-cutting boss Arthur (Tyler Perry in a bit of a throwaway part). There's also Owen's brother-in-law Montana wilderness sheriff Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and his kick-ass pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore turning a potentially nothing part into something really exciting). 

It's kind of exhausting trying to encapsulate this tangle of a tale and there's some talky set-ups; I can see why Koryta's work probably makes a good page-turner. The first half of the movie is a bit wobbly in its zig-zag character sketching. But once things get going and the worlds of these characters collide, it's often thrilling and fun (watch Jolie fall from a cabin in the sky on stilts and wince as she pours peroxide on her wounds and get struck by lightning and run towards a forest fire!) all with a bombastic score by Brian Tyler booming about. Visually, the CGI effects (lightning bolts and forest fires ablaze) have a shiny, campy appeal, but can also be sort of beautiful at the same time, like the imagery of falling ash. 

It's interesting to see a true movie star in this action movie role playing a somewhat textured character (not a superhero or stock fantasy role) of considerable strength and physical ability. This doesn't feel too common anymore. Her scenes with Little are sometimes the strongest in the movie, with scrappy, emotional appeal. So with that, the overall sturdy ensemble, plus the zippy action the film packs in, Sherdian's movie is one of the more refreshing ones to come along at this juncture for mainstream movies, despite being somewhat silly and extraordinarily overwrought. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg  

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