Those Who Wish This Was Better
It brings me no joy to write that Taylor Sheridan's adaptation of Those Who Wish Me Dead is really nothing more than an average, run-of-the-mill thriller. The setup and the premise assures us it's going to be anything but, then the execution unfortunately falls that. Angelina Jolie makes her big screen return as the lead; I was excited to see her come out of her supposed retirement from acting, but ultimately she is wasted as there was not near enough screen time devoted to her or her character. Taylor Sheridan is a gifted writer and a talented filmmaker, but this feels like he was merely going through the motions. The craft on display is competent, however the visuals revealed just how stringent the budget actually was. Those Who Wish Me Dead had all kinds of promise, but no delivery upon said promise. Let's dive into exactly why this didn't particularly work.
It will come as a shock to no one to read that the writing was probably one of the weaker aspects of the film. As stated, I believe Taylor Sheridan is a talented writer. He has more than shown it with his previous films, Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River. He even has an Oscar nomination to show for it with his original screenplay for Hell or High Water. So, Sheridan is no stranger to good writing. What I feel he excels at is establishing characters, making us care for them, and a strong proficiency for narrative structure and even breaking conventions. Unfortunately, this was all too conventional. It felt way too familiar for something that should be anything but. Sheridan does establish Jolie, Bernthal, and Senghore's characters very well, and we do care for them. However, the film loses narrative momentum with contrivances and conveniences. Not to mention, Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult portray a couple of the blandest villains ever put to screen. Obviously with how great these actors are, this should not at all be the case. Additionally, much of the action and suspense plays out like a B-thriller, which only made my eyes roll. Perhaps this was due to the source material, but Sheridan should know better than to play into the hands of his ever-capable audience(s). That being said, I could easily predict much of the plot and when your audience is two steps ahead of the film or filmmaker, that causes us to lose interest. The surprise is gone and so is my ability to care.
One could make the case that the direction of the film was even weaker than the screenplay. But, I'm always a harsher critic on the writing side. In any case, Taylor Sheridan's direction, as I alluded to earlier, was quite bland, unimaginative, and simply just meh/shoulder shrug. The main reason I felt he was sleepwalking through the direction is that he has stated before that he hates directing. Perhaps when he said this, it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it seems a self-fulfilling prophecy by now he hates directing so much that he'll do anything to just get through it. He did direct his original 2017 thriller Wind River, which I thought was fantastic. But now, I can't help but think he should just pass the torch. I feel similarly about Aaron Sorkin. Some people are meant to just write, not direct. Sheridan's direction here does not add any flair, nor does it differentiate itself from the pack in any significant way. One can't help but imagine this film in better directorial hands.
The case can also be made for this being the weakest part of the film, but I felt that the other two aspects had to be mentioned first. As I mentioned before, the visuals in this film felt very low budget in the worst of ways. I don't have anything against low budget films, but this required a ton of CG which needs to be done well in order for it to be taken seriously. The computer-generated fires were laughable, for starters. And with that being so integral to the plot, it's hard to look at and it's hard not to be taken out of the moment when what you're looking at feels fake. The suspension of disbelief certainly could be had, but I could never push it from my mind. Not to mention, there's an explosion at the beginning of the film (mild spoiler) which just looks awful, simply put. It's clear to me that this film could not receive the intended budget, and they had to make do. My thing is, if your visuals aren't great, then we shouldn't be looking at them too long. We can do just fine by cutting away and having us hear the explosions or the crackling of fires, and our eyes set on the reactions of the characters. No shame in that. There is, however, shame in bad CGI.
While I spent almost this entire review shitting on this movie (sorry, Taylor), it's still a decent blockbuster-ish thriller to check out in a theater. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at the very least slightly entertained by it, even if I could predict nearly the whole thing and I was almost constantly bothered by issues with the visuals and flaws in the filmmaking. It was fun to see Angelina Jolie back on the big screen, botox and all. Just kidding, Angelina, you've still got it. I was also impressed by the performance of child actor Finn Little (I'm not easily impressed by child acting, by the way). On the other hand, I do wish Angelina and Little's characters weren't so thinly written. Which brings me to my next point, this film was prevented from reaching the next level by the subpar writing and the lackluster direction. It also could have done well with a bigger budget for its VFX. All in all, if you feel compelled to see this film, I won't deter you. What I will say is that it does not come even remotely close to reaching the heights of Sheridan's Modern American Frontier Trilogy (Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River). If you are a fan of Sheridan's recent works, (Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Yellowstone) then sure, check it out. I, however, am not at all a fan of those as I feel they are vastly inferior to his previous, aforementioned efforts. Those who wish this was better: I am one of them.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is a Warner Brothers film and is available wherever movie theaters are safely open and is also available streaming on HBO MAX.