‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ satisfies with intense, concise slow burn

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

The latest film in the lineup of HBO Max’s same-day releases, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is another notch in Taylor Sheridan’s contemporary Western belt — not a wholly original one, but one that certainly succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish. At times, the film feels like a composite of more inspired works, cribbing much of its characterization, aesthetic and narrative from its predecessors, but it comes together to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” doesn’t break new ground, but it gracefully leverages the tried and true foundation it borrows from its influences. 

Directed by Sheridan and based on a novel by Michael Kortya, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” plays out in the aftermath of forensic accountant Owen Casserly’s (Jake Weber) discovery of a massive corruption scheme involving the highest levels of American business and politics. Two hitmen, played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen, come after Owen, forcing him and his son Connor (Finn Little) on the run. They flee to Montana, where they try to find safety in the arms of their relatives and grizzled smokejumper Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie).

Sheridan is one of the more influential filmmakers in the contemporary Western genre, but this latest venture is often more reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre than of Sheridan’s previous work. 

The two hitmen contain traces of the Coens’ most memorable villains, employing both the frigid cruelty of Anton Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men” and the goofy banter of the criminals-for-hire from “Fargo.” Combining these seemingly incompatible personas is a difficult needle to thread, but the film does it with moderate success thanks to the pair’s chilling performances. Hoult and Gillen charm with their wry smiles and terrify with their dead eyes, but they falter when the script asks them to manage the casual-sounding dialogue while maintaining their all-business demeanor — the delivery is often more stilted than sleek.

The superior duo, Little and Jolie, squares its dialogue and performances much more gracefully. Jolie is no stranger to films that balance action with personality; her work in “Salt” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” proves as much. Jolie has a talent for accessing levity in intense moments, and she does this impeccably here. She switches gears with head-snapping agility, going from laugh-out-loud comedy as she rattles off profane tongue twisters to gripping suspense as she shouts instructions at her companion to help him avoid being struck by lightning — all in the span of one scene. She’s supported in her endeavors by Little, whose mature sincerity raises the stakes of their adventures and imbues them with emotional weight.

This duo also, however, suffers from the script’s pitfalls. Where Sheridan’s screenplay for “Hell or High Water” succeeded with brief, but powerful invocations of its characters’ backstories, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” operates more like a Tony Scott thriller, shoehorning sad anecdotes in the lulls between action sequences in a weak and unnecessary attempt to fill out the characters’ deeper motivations long after they’ve been implied through the nuances of the performances.

The film’s camerawork is often breathtaking, which isn’t necessarily surprising for a Western that takes full advantage of its setting’s natural beauty. But what is surprising is the camera’s interest in light, in the wind, in the human face and on how these elements play into and off of one another. It concentrates on these subtle, mundane features as much as it does on the sweeping vistas of the Montana forests, and this focus does more to build out and embellish the stakes of the film than any of the script’s sappy sob stories. 

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” isn’t doing much to revitalize the Western genre, certainly not as much as some of Sheridan’s stronger endeavors. But the film entertains with ease and even manages to tug on a heartstring or two throughout. At a breezy 100-minute runtime, it’s a perfect film to start the summer.

Matthew DuMont is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].