Connor: “My dad said if anything happened to him, to find someone I could trust.”
Hannah: “I’m absolutely someone you can trust.”
I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a brand-new release for a very long time. Could it have been propelled by the CDC’s easing of mask wearing guidelines and the long-time-coming defrost that we’re experiencing? Maybe…but I will attribute it to the fact that I’m a fan of any new film that falls into the category of neo-Western. To boot (see what I did there…), and this was the main reason for my feverish anticipation, “Those Who Want Me Dead” (2021) is co-written by Taylor Sheridan, one of the best screenwriters working today (he has been rewarded for his efforts with two best screenplay Academy Award nominations), responsible for the phenomenal script for “Sicario” (2015), its sequel, and the spectacular “Hell or High Water” (2016). He made his directorial debut with “Wind River” (2017) and he’s the creator of the modern Western drama series “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner. Sheridan, a former actor of mostly supporting roles, has developed–in a very small oeuvre–a recognizable signature. His scripts are very taut, do away with exposition and can be considered pulp – with simple good guy vs bad guy plots, clearly delineated characters and lots of action. There’s a strong undercurrent in his narratives that deals with social issues affecting our nation, whether it is drugs, the immigration situation at the border, the mortgage crisis in Texas or the abuse of indigenous women. All of the movies penned by him have a common thread, they’re contemporary tales of blood and justice against the backdrop of a big and violent American landscape. His characters’ physical journeys through their surrounding environments parallel the internal emotional paths they’re navigating.
Another motive for my enthusiasm for “Those Who Want Me Dead” is the return to form by Angelina Jolie starring in an action film. In the past decade the superstar has been occupied directing her own films, doing two “Maleficent” movies, and by her commitment as a special envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as undergoing a painful and public untethering from Brad Pitt. The role of Hanna, the Montana firefighter who is suffering from trauma and guilt and is forced to take responsibility for the safekeeping of a kid to earn a chance at redemption seems to fit the tough actress like a glove. At times we feel palpably that the character has a deep connection with the thespian especially when she’s required to tap into both maternal and survival instincts.
Sheridan drops us into the middle of things without much explanation. He assumes we’re smart filmgoers! In Soda Butte, Montana, Hannah is still struggling with her failure to prevent the death of three young campers and one of her co-workers. She’s a smokejumper – a specially trained first responder who provides an initial attach on remote wildland fires, dropping into the sites by parachute. Meanwhile Owen, a forensic accountant, finds out about the murder of his boss and his family in an apparent gas explosion. He suspects they will be coming for him next, copies on a piece of paper some incriminating information he knows and takes his young son with him. As they make their way to Montana to seek refuge with brother in-law Ethan, a deputy sheriff and a colleague of Hanna’s, they’re followed by two brother assassins. Hanna finds herself safekeeping the young son Connor (the “me” who’s been wished dead), and the evidence he has with him, from the aggressors. Ethan and his pregnant wife Allison find themselves as well in the line of fire.
A raging blaze is intentionally started and the intense cat and mouse plays out with a background of the disaster. Mother nature herself becomes an opposition. It is a credit to Sheridan that we care about all those involved. He gives us enough information about each, creating sufficient appeal and leaving us wanting to know more about them. Brawny Jon Bernthal plays Ethan and we find out he used to date Hannah. Allison and him run a wilderness survival camp and the scene with her entrapped by the brothers and forced to wield a rifle is phenomenal. Medina Senghore is extraordinary in this role, making us want the story focused on her more. Aidan Gillen (so duplicitous in “Game of Thrones”) is the older of two killer brothers who will unscrupulously obliterate anything in their path. There’s a huge age gap between him and Nicholas Hoult and I loved spending time figuring out their back story. Tyler Perry has one memorable scene, and it’s his best work since “Gone Girl.”
There are some terrific set pieces: Jolie and kid crossing a field during a lightning storm, and pregnant Allison fighting for her life as ashes rain down. It’s a muscular action film for adults. And welcome back, Angie!
Hannah: “Keep going.”
Connor: “Toward the fire?”
Hannah: “Yeah buddy.”
Available to stream on HBO Max
Screenplay by Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt and Taylor Sheridan
Based on the novel by Michael Koryta
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry
About Cinematographer Ben Richardson
Ben Richardson, ASC was born in England and studied media arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. In an interview with the French Society of Cinematographers, Richardson said that he taught himself how to light by working on short films with friends and observing how natural light worked. His first feature, the critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated drama “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” earned Richardson Best Cinematography awards at the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance Film Festival as well as multiple nominations, including the Camerimage Golden Frog and a Satellite Award. Prior to this, Richardson served as animator on the short “Seed,” which won Best Animated Short at the 2010 Slamdance Film Festival. The cinematographer’s feature credits also include the critically acclaimed crime drama “Wind River,” “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Drinking Buddies,” “Table 19,” “Sand Castle” and “1922.” For his work on the television series “Yellowstone,” Richardson received an ASC Award nomination in 2019 for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Episode of a Series for Commercial Television. He also served as a co-producer and directed two episodes of the series. His upcoming credits include the thriller “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” directed by Taylor Sheridan. (theasc.com)
About Author Michael Koryta
Michael Koryta (pronounced Ko-ree-ta) is the New York Times-bestselling author of 14 novels, a novella, and multiple short stories. His work has been praised by Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lisa Unger, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Daniel Woodrell, and Sandra Brown among many others, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. His books have won or been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar® Award, Shamus Award, Barry Award, Quill Award, International Thriller Writers Award, and the Golden Dagger. They’ve been selected as “best books of the year” by publications as diverse as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com, O the Oprah Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, People, Reader’s Digest, iBooks, and Kirkus Reviews. If She Wakes is one of the most anticipated books of 2019, receiving accolades from Booklist (“instantly gripping”), Kirkus Reviews (“chilling…knuckle-biting”), and Publisher’s Weekly (“Hitchcockian”). Stephen King called “How It Happened” “perfect summer reading” and Good Morning America agreed, naming it a Best Beach Read. Kirkus Reviews said it was one of the best thrillers of 2018. “Rise the Dark” (the second in the Markus Novak series) was a national bestseller and was named to several Best of 2016 lists including The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” his 2014 stand-alone novel, was named the summer’s best thriller by both Amazon and Entertainment Weekly and was selected as one of the year’s best books by more than 10 publications. The audio version was also honored as a best of the year, the second time that Robert Petkoff’s narration of Michael’s work has earned such an honor…
Michael’s previous work ranges from a trio of supernatural novels— “So Cold the River,” “The Cypress House,” and “The Ridge,” which were all named New York Times notable books of the year and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly—to stand-alone crime novels including “The Prophet” (A New York Times bestseller) and “Envy the Night” (selected as a Reader’s Digest condensed book), to a series of award-winning novels featuring private investigator Lincoln Perry—”Tonight I Said Goodbye,” “Sorrow’s Anthem,” “A Welcome Grave,” and “The Silent Hour.” Michael has written for the screen in both feature film and television, writing scripts for Fox, Universal, and Amazon Studios. Before turning to writing full-time, Michael worked as a private investigator, a newspaper reporter, and taught at the Indiana University School of Journalism. He began working for a private investigator as an intern while in high school, turned it into his day job in the early stages of his writing career. As a journalist, he won numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. Michael’s first novel, the Edgar-nominated “Tonight I Said Goodbye” was accepted for publication when he was 20 years old. He wrote his first two published novels before graduating from college and was published in nearly 10 languages before he fulfilled the “writing requirement” classes required for his diploma. Michael was raised in Bloomington, Indiana, where he graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. In 2008, he was honored as a “distinguished young alumni” by Indiana University, and in 2010 he was named “distinguished alumni’ by the criminal justice department. Hiking, camping, boating, and fishing are all likely to occupy his free time when he’s not working on a new book. Some of his favorite spots in the world are the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, which is the setting of “Those Who Wish Me Dead” and “Rise the Dark”; the flowages of the Northwoods in Wisconsin, St. Petersburg, FL, where he lived for 8 years, and the Maine midcoast, where lives part-time. Michael and his wife, Christine, divide their time between Bloomington and Camden, Maine with a cranky cat named Marlowe, an emotionally disturbed cat named John Pryor (named after the gravestone on which he was found as an abandoned kitten), and a dog of unknown heritage named Lola. Research has always been a driving passion for Michael, leading him from big-cat rescues with the Exotic Feline Rescue Center to wilderness survival schools and caving trips. (michaelkoryta.com)
About Writer and Director Taylor Sheridan
When Taylor Sheridan was 11 years old, he caught a wicked case of pneumonia that left him bedridden for weeks and unable to enjoy the 200 acres he lived on in the small North Texas community of Bosque County, just an hour west of Waco. Though he looks back on his childhood fondly, being sick and stuck with nothing to do but watch the three channels on his TV set was the foundation for what he does today. “I watched a lot of old movies,” Sheridan, 47, recently told Business Insider of that time. “Clint Eastwood movies, a lot of John Wayne films, a lot of movies that celebrated the region of where I lived. Soon after, we finally got cable, and the whole world opened up.”…After spending over 20 years as a struggling actor, he finally landed a steady role playing Deputy Chief David Hale for three seasons on “Sons of Anarchy.” But when it came time to renegotiate his contract in 2010, Sheridan found himself at a crossroads. “They had one idea about what I was worth, and I had a very different idea,” he said. The grind to make a living as an actor had delivered its death blow. Fed up with making the weekly salary rate for “Sons of Anarchy” — which after taxes and paying his agent wasn’t enough for him to make a living, so he had to also teach evening acting classes to pay rent — and with a baby on the way, Sheridan saw the negotiations as a wake-up call. “How can you tell your kid you can be anything you want to be if you’re not trying to do the same?” he said. “I imagine myself being 40-something years old and I can’t go to his baseball game because I got a Windex commercial or something.” So Sheridan quit “Sons of Anarchy” — and acting. This is when Taylor Sheridan’s career in show business could have ended. Not wanting to raise his child in a big city like Los Angeles, he moved his family to Wyoming, where he interviewed for a ranch manager job.
“I was going to be the head wrangler at a ranch in Wyoming, and the reason I didn’t take the job is because I couldn’t have my family there — the family had to stay in town,” Sheridan said. “I just wasn’t willing to do that.” Instead, Sheridan took up screenwriting. His first script was “Sicario,” a thriller he wrote on spec that’s set on the US-Mexico border and follows an idealistic FBI agent who is brought in to help take down the Mexican cartels, but instead finds she’s the pawn in a plot of a CIA officer to take control of one of the cartels by having its leader assassinated. “I didn’t expect the movie to ever be made,” Sheridan said. “Every writer has written a spec. It’s the first thing you write, and it basically stands as a means of ‘here’s an example of how I tell stories.’ It’s almost like a business card. “So ‘Sicario’ essentially was that. You dream it will be made. You hope. But realistically you can’t care.” Sheridan threw the script in the drawer and wrote a script that would be easier to sell: “Hell or High Water,” then titled “Comancheria.” (businessinsider.com)
An Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan serves as writer, director, and executive producer of the Paramount Network series “Yellowstone”…Sheridan made his debut as a writer/director with his critically acclaimed film “Wind River,” the conclusion to his modern frontier trilogy, which was released in August 2017. Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and debuted in Un Certain Regard at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, where Sheridan earned Best Director (Prix de la mise en scène) honors. Sheridan also received a nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First-Time Feature Film Director at the 2018 Director’s Guild Awards. He previously wrote “Hell Or High Water,” which was nominated for four Academy Awards®, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. The film, a drama set in the struggling rural areas of West Texas, earned Sheridan additional nominations for Best Screenplay at the Gotham Awards, Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globe Awards, WGA Awards, and Independent Spirit Awards. His other credits include “Sicario,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin, which was released in 2015 to critical and box office acclaim. The film was also nominated for several awards including Best Theatrical Motion Picture by the PGA and Best Original Screenplay by the WGA…(paramountnetwork.com)