Over the course of his as-of-yet short but nonetheless intense filmmaking career, Taylor Sheridan has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the screenwriters to watch out for. In all fairness, thanks to his work on Sicario and Hell or High Water he has generated enough clout around himself to become more than just ‘a guy who wrote XYZ’, which is harder than it may look like to some because the world of cinema has consistently been revolving around actors and directors. Nobody ever remembers screenwriters unless they’re Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. And at least as far as the online film-loving community is concerned, Taylor Sheridan has joined this prestigious club.
On the other hand, his directorial work has not enjoyed such unanimous acclaim, sparse such as it is with Wind River, Yellowstone and now Those Who Wish Me Dead. And it’s hard not to see why Sheridan’s movies are difficult to get behind in this current climate. They honestly belong in a different era and may be completely incompatible with the needs and desires of the modern film-goer who grew up in a world where the blockbuster entertainment has been dominated by superhero movies and assorted franchise sequels for a long while. Consequently, the hard-R thrillers that ruled the roost in the 80s and 90s were not only relegated to the bottomless pit of direct-to-streaming content, but pretty much consigned to history. As of now, only a handful of filmmakers (like Antoine Fuqua, David Ayer, Jeremy Saulnier and maybe even Danny Boyle when he’s not busying himself with prestige productions) continue to make good old-fashioned entertainment aimed squarely at grown-ass men who find spandex-clad superheroes silly at best; which is a rather narrow niche, to say the least.
In any case, Sheridan’s newest outing Those Who Wish Me Dead fits perfectly as an example of entertainment for dads who don’t care about Superman that much and couldn’t give a toss about anything Marvel-related. It’s an honest-to-Jesus throwback to the 80s and 90s complete with a child eyewitness on the run, ruthless assassins, mysterious gangsters and squibs. Lots of squibs. Adapted from an airport page-turner written by Michael Koryta, this film checks quite a lot of boxes to be classified as a quintessential ‘dad movie’. Interestingly, as it turns out Taylor Sheridan isn’t merely laser-focused on making schlocky entertainment harking back to a bygone era, as he is putting a twist on it. It would seem that all of his movies (and even his screenwriting work to a major extent) are connected at the hip not only by virtue of being enthralled to ‘dad entertainment’ but because they are all westerns at their core and a big part of their allure is played by their setting, thus highlighting the beauty of American interior. Wind River set its gritty murder mystery soaked in sexual violence in the snowy landscapes of Wyoming and Those Who Wish Me Dead brings its tattered plot about a young kid on the run from bloodthirsty killers and a firefighter with a tragic past finding each other and trying to survive into the lush woods of Montana.
Therefore, cliché as it may sound to some, the setting of Those Who Wish Me Dead is a bona fide character in this film, on par with those of Angelina Jolie, Jon Bernthal and Nicholas Hoult. In fact, I would even go as far as to suggest it is a better, more organically fleshed-out character than either of them, because the story – such as it is – has a multitude of problems, most of which might be carried over from its source material. To put it bluntly, for a movie that should be lean, simple and immediate, this one is the exact opposite. In fact, it almost feels as though it was adapted verbatim from the novel where it’s OK to run multiple parallel narratives, develop a set of characters as co-leads without them ever meeting for more than half a second, give quite a lot of attention to the villains and for everything to slowly converge in a climactic final act, where foreshadowed character quirks make a re-appearance and everything is nice and symmetrical. But this is not a book. It’s a movie and adapting a text without making strategic changes to the way the story and characters are developed incurs a penalty in the form of ruining the pacing. Thus, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a weird mishmash of high-octane set pieces tactically positioned as tentpoles to the entire experience, all surrounded by a sea of utter molasses and unnecessarily spiced up with character nuance that honestly should have been edited out of the script.
Do we have to know that Angelina Jolie’s character is a parachute-jumping badass with a death wish? Probably not. We could most likely infer quite a lot from the context and maybe even – shocking, I know – take it on face value that she’s a hard-boiled survivalist simply because we’d get to witness her as she does her thing. Do we have to spend so much time with the assassins? Probably not. How important is Jon Bernthal’s wife in all this? Do we care that she rides horses? We probably do because she ends up instrumental to how the story resolves… that is only if we assume the source material is gospel and we are not allowed to make changes to streamline the narrative. Which is what I think Taylor Sheridan did. He must have really liked the book and how everything in it comes together so perfectly – too perfectly – in a gripping finale with a massive face-off coinciding with a raging wildfire taking hold over the entire area. I can honestly see how on paper this story cooks hard. Though, let’s give credit where credit is due – the final act looks astonishing with its orange hues and heavy texture of smoke.
But movies are not made of paper and what can be excused in a book, usually because the reader is allowed more time to process certain things and immediacy does not factor into the experience, may not fly as well in the context of a feature film. Such is the case with Those Who Wish Me Dead, which never really gels despite its best intentions. It works best when it commits to Sheridan’s own proclivities towards visceral and graphic genre filmmaking, but fails as a compelling story because all throughout its runtime the viewer is never allowed to forget that these people are not people. They are characters.
It only goes to show that adapting a novel is not the easiest thing in the world and even the most talented writer-directors might get it wrong sometimes. Therefore, Those Who Wish Me Dead occupies a similar space in Taylor Sheridan’s catalogue to what Hold The Dark is in Jeremy Saulnier’s. It is an ambitious attempt at both adapting a novel and staying true to one’s own aspirations that eventually falls apart because the filmmakers adapting it may not have had the same organic connections to the characters and the story that they would have had if it had been their original idea. And the film’s pervasive ‘dad energy’ is nowhere near enough to keep everything together.