Taylor Sheridan, actor turned writer turned director, has slowly become one of my favorite talents in the game, and in the past few years he’s been downright prolific with the amount of material he’s pumped out. Some of it is better than others, but when it’s good, there’s simply no one better at making what I like to think of as the nouveau western. The high water mark here is, well, Hell or High Water. Sicario, too, is another absolutely fantastic script. Wind River, Sheridan’s first stab at directing his own material* crystallized his work as a sort of brand, and it’s a brand that offers a pretty unique spin on a classic thing.
I’d be tempted to call his movies “dude movies” but they’re typically smarter than that lame nomenclature would have you think, and as evidenced in Sicario, Sheridan was able to write a very compelling female-led narrative as well. That said, his work features no shortage of blue collar “salt of the earth” types, who throw each other the keys to the truck, load its bed, and then hit the side with an open palm to let the driver know that they can drive off. Well, peel out, actually. People like to peel out in this world. Mustachioed Sheriffs in cowboy hats like to eat steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and anyone who calls them out for it “sounds like my ex-wife”(don’t get the wrong idea — she was a good woman and I should’ve treated her right). Ragtag groups of non-risk-averse toughies drink cheap beer and cause trouble, but damnit, they get the job done so well that the boss can’t help but to roll his eyes at their playful tomfoolery. The good guys have each other’s backs, as do the bad guys, because that’s the code of honor “in these parts.” Trees everywhere, or nowhere, depending on when the fire or famine came through, and if you could just see the labels through the stains, you’d be positive that Dickies or Wrangler bought all the product placement.
This is the world in which Those Who Wish Me Dead takes place, and it’s a good thing, because it’s the only shell that could carry such an aggressive plot machine with such grace. While a lot of the strong character work that defined Hell or High Water is missing here, it’s an absence that is not sorely felt. Like I just said, this is a plot MACHINE, and what a well-oiled machine it is. It’s also a pretty large ensemble story, like the many westerns it draws from, so a basic plot description is a fool’s errand. I’ll do my best.
Angeline Jolie plays Hannah, a smokejumper (someone who fights wildfires by parachuting into them) who, after a tragic event on the job, has been relegated to fire tower duty. She’s not happy about it, but is clearly traumatized enough that it’s smart to take a hiatus from action. Elsewhere we meet Connor (Finn Little). Connor’s father (Jake Weber) is a forensic accountant who has recently uncovered something huge. The details aren’t made specific, but what he’s discovered is extremely privileged information, as evidenced by the duo of hitmen (Aiden Gillan and Nicholas Hoult) sent to kill him and anyone that stands in their way. In order to avoid these killers for hire, Connor and his dad take a road trip from Florida to Montana, where they plan to hide out with family. This comes in the form of an honest cop (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant, survivalist wife (Medina Senghore). Throw all these pieces into a blender with wildfires, horsies, and lightning storms, and you’ve got yourself a very intense, occasionally silly thriller.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Michael Koryta (who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Sheridan and Charles Leavitt), and it shows in the structure. While never boring or confusing, it takes the entirety of the first act for the film to establish itself as an ensemble piece. I found myself unsure of who exactly we were following, only to find out that we were following everybody. This is ultimately to the film’s strength because, I’ll say it again, this movie is all about delivering the thrills in plot form. This isn’t to say that the characters are empty, just that their characterizations seem to be of lesser concern than the excitement of an intense narrative. I did find myself caring about each and every one of our players (even the villains) in the moment, but with little to go on by way of who they are or what they want outside of the central plot concerns.
Sheridan proves himself a strong director, capturing sweeping and beautiful landscapes with a keen eye for the vastness of the wilderness. He’s also quite good at constructing action sequences, which typically have a small-scale level as well as a larger, wider one. One sequence, which takes place within a fire tower surrounded by gunmen, captures the claustrophobic nature of being trapped in a single location, while also effectively establishing the larger action sequence happening outside — a sequence that is itself involved in another, larger concentric layer of action. It should be an unwieldy endeavor, but here it plays clean and is exciting as hell. Being a film that is essentially a series of set-pieces, this sense of geography never falters, and by the time there’s a fast-moving blaze at the periphery of, well, everything, the clarity of each layer of scene geography becomes absolutely essential.
Said fire is a mixed bag, however. I understand that it’s just not possible to safely shoot a movie amidst a raging forest fire, so naturally, CGI will have to be used. To the credit of the filmmakers, a LOT of clearly practical flames are indeed employed, but the digital enhancements are tough not to see. Smartly, Sheridan and his effects team mostly use the encroaching flames as a backdrop, rather than keeping them front and center. The presence of the inferno is felt, so the spectacle isn’t needed. Snowy ash landing on the sweaty faces of our cast of characters does most of the work. Impeccable lighting does the rest.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a supremely entertaining thriller that delivers its charms in brutal flourishes, punctuated by a roster of large, scene-chewing performances (a mid-movie cameo from Tyler Perry threw me off guard in the best of ways — dude is scary as hell for just a few short minutes). The pace is quick, the plot compelling, and the tone gripping and suspenseful. Sure, some of the dialogue is groan-worthy, and the bigger performances might be grating for some, especially with the relatively shallow characterizations they enact, but I challenge anyone not to get swept up in the excitement of the package on the whole. This is slam-bang entertainment with very little fat on it.
If Sheridan decides to sequelize this like he did with Sicario and focus entirely on the adventures of the hitmen, I will not complain.
*Wind River is often mistaken as Sheridan’s directorial debut. It is not. He directed a 2011 horror flick titled Vile.
Released in cinemas and on HBO Max on May 14, 2021.