One of the things I love about Taylor Sheridan’s exhilarating neo-Western “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is how the movie spends a minimum amount of time explaining the launching point for a violent and breathtakingly suspenseful chain of events — and then plunges us into one of the best thrillers in recent memory.
Here’s what we learn early on. There’s a Big Sweeping Scandal brewing and it will take down a cauldron of law enforcement and high-ranking political officials — so hits have been ordered on a Florida district attorney and the forensic accountant. After the D.A. and his family are wiped out, the aforementioned accountant, a widower named Mr. Casserly (Jake Weber), hits the road with his 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little) in the hopes of making it to Montana, where his brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal) is a sheriff.
Mr. Casserly knows he can trust Ethan. He’s not so sure about the rest of the world. That’s all we really learn about that Big Sweeping Scandal, and we just go with it.
By the time the father-and-son assassin duo of Jack and Patrick Blackwell (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult, respectively) ambush the Casserlys in Montana, leaving Connor on his own, in shock and running for his life in the woods, we’ve already been introduced to Angelina Jolie’s Hannah, a smokejumper who is in the throes of PTSD a year after she failed to save three boys who were trapped in a raging forest fire. Assigned to the relatively safe duty of monitoring the land from a one-person lookout tower, Hannah comes across the panicked Connor, hears his story — and becomes his guide and protector as they try to stay one step ahead of the Blackwells against the backdrop of an electrical storm that has cut off all power and has caused a raging forest fire that threatens to engulf everything in its path. Oh, and Hannah has just been struck by lightning, so she’s bruised and battered and seems a little weird, though she claims she was a little weird before she was zapped.
So, yes: there’s a lot going on in “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” and we’re just getting started. Director Sheridan and his co-writers Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta (whose novel is the source material) have fashioned a thoroughly engrossing tale filled with memorable characters, dryly funny dialogue and show-stopping, often brutal confrontations in which the weapon of choice varies from semi-automatic firearms to a deer rifle to a fire extinguisher to handguns to an axe to bare fists, depending on the circumstances. To be sure, there are moments when we think, “Couldn’t they just …” or “Why doesn’t somebody …,” but we quickly dismiss those questions because we’re so caught up in this gripping story that plays a little like a Big Sky version of “The Client,” with a hard-bitten, world-weary woman suddenly finding herself in fiercely protective mother mode when a boy who has witnessed an unspeakable tragedy drops into her care.
Bernthal is his usual likable self as the hard-shelled, soft-hearted sheriff, but it’s Medina Senghore who steals the show as Ethan’s six-months-pregnant wife, Allison, who runs a wilderness survivalist camp and is thus quite well-equipped to deal with those menacing Blackwells when they came banging on the door of the Sawyers’ cabin in search of young Connor. Not everyone is going to survive this ordeal, but when Allison climbs aboard a trusty steed and they gallop into the blackness, it’s the polar opposite of going gently into any good night. She is such a badass.
Cinematographer Ben Richardson and the special effects team deliver one visually arresting set piece after another; one of my favorite moments is when a team of smokejumpers with deep red parachutes swoop down on a patch of land so strafed by wildfire it looks like the surface of the moon. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” has great old-fashioned storytelling set against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop, and there’s never a wasted moment or throwaway line of dialogue in this expertly constructed story. Angelina Jolie returns to peak movie-star form with her powerful and resonant performance, and young Finn Little is a natural who breaks our heart as he tries his best to keep it together even as he weeps for his father.
As the writer and/or director of such works as “Sicario,” “Hell or High Water,” “Wind River” and the TV series “Yellowstone,” Taylor Sheridan has compiled an astonishingly strong library of stories about men and women who drive pickup trucks and ride horses, who know their way around guns and knives, who wake up every morning knowing they’ll be covered in sweat and grime, and maybe blood, by the end of the day. He has created numerous memorable antiheroes who rise to the occasion when the occasion threatens to end their world, and “Those Who Wish Me Dead” ranks among his very best work.