‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ plays it safe and flatlines

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” – Connor Casserly (Finn Little) lives a comfortable, orderly existence in Jacksonville, Fla.  His attentive dad (Jake Weber) and he enjoy a strong relationship and play by the rules at home, school, and work.

Connor’s about 11, an age when boys still listen to the fathers.  If need be, this particular kid will follow his pop to the ends of the earth.  In director/co-writer Taylor Sheridan’s “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, he does.  Owen (Weber) and Connor find themselves in grave danger because two assassins decide to hunt them down and play for keeps.

So, the Casserlys make a cross-country road trip to Montana for safe harbor to stay with Owen’s brother-in-law, Ethan (Jon Bernthal).  Not only is Montana about as far away from Florida in the continental United States as one can imagine (and please disregard Idaho and Washington from this conversation), but culturally opposite as well.

Sheridan’s first three screenplays – “Sicario” (2015), “Hell or High Water” (2016), and “Wind River” (2017) – are set in the spacious west, so adapting Michael Koryta’s novel – for the big and small screens – is on point.  During a 2014 Amazon Books interview, Koryta explains that he felt inspired by our nation’s massive landscapes during a backpacking trip through the Beartooth Mountains in Montana and Wyoming.

“I was standing on the edge of this cliff looking out, and I realized I (could not) see another soul, quite literally.  I think we were 40 miles away from cellphone reception at that point, and with my warped, twisted mind, I immediately began to think, ‘I could put a character in a lot of trouble up here,’” Koryta said.

Koryta, screenwriter Charles Leavitt, and Sheridan do precisely that, as Connor finds himself (due to events that will not be revealed in this review) caught in the middle of nowhere on his own.  By the looks of things, our young protagonist seems about 40 miles away from cellphone reception as well.

The film’s title, “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, speaks for itself, as Sheridan isn’t placing any hidden double meanings here.  This story is a straight-up chase picture set in the Big Sky Country wilderness, but the cast and crew actually filmed in New Mexico.  Unfortunately, that’s about the only surprise in this movie, and that’s a problem.

The picture has all the elements for a nail-biting, twisty thriller that we have come to expect from Sheridan, including the great outdoors, murder attempts, and big-time actors.  He corralled a terrific ensemble with Angelina Jolie, Bernthal, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Weber, and even Tyler Perry makes a brief appearance.  Weber is especially welcome to this critic, as he played the grounded husband for seven seasons on NBC’s “Medium” (2005 – 2011) with Patricia Arquette.  Here, Weber plays the same sort of responsible, resourceful rock, but the leading players are Jolie’s Hannah – a gritty but caring firefighter – and Connor.  She finds him treading through the wild and attempts to escort him on his journey.

The movie doesn’t focus on the specific details for the Casserlys’ misfortune, such as who are these assassins?  What specifically did Owen do (or discover)?  Who are the larger forces at work?  These questions fall by the wayside, or since we’re in Montana…off a cliff.

Instead, Sheridan pits Hannah and Connor on the run against the aforementioned baddies (Gillen and Hoult), the rugged terrain, and a forest fire for good measure.  Although the film places this woman and kid in harm’s way, there are just a scant few moments when the tension resonates.

Rather than face and climb intimidating gradients constructed from Mother Nature’s granite, this motherly figure and her young protégé – in many cases – casually stroll over flat open fields.

Does anyone have a frisbee?

Perhaps, a couple of absurd, first act moments – including Jolie surviving a 50-foot drop from a tower, landing flat on her back, and simply (although slowly) standing up – creates an insincere, fabricated mood.  Rather than sharing the on-screen struggles, I could almost see the film crew standing just off-camera and Sheridan declaring, “Action.”

The movie’s frank mission becomes more character-driven.  Hannah seeks redemption (for a past on-the-job error) by steering Connor to safety, and with a scant 93-minute runtime, there’s not a lot of runway for much else.  Early in the first act, the film attempts to establish Hannah’s post-traumatic stress for a heartbeat or two, but the emotive thumping doesn’t punch through.

We get that Hannah swallows her sorrow through some daredevil antics and bonding with her male firefighting crew.  She’s a sympathetic character, but her banter with Connor is paint-by-the-numbers with familiar, scripted ink.  Hannah builds Connor’s spirits by talking about trust and his future girlfriends, but their arc is safe and uninspired.

Anyway, Bernthal and Medina Senghore play a likable couple with a baby on the way, and Gillen and Hoult deliver some degree of menace.  Probably the movie’s best scenes are Allison (Senghore) trying to fend off the pair of mercenaries and Ethan’s breakfast meeting with his boss, a crusty but fair sheriff (Boots Southerland).  He seems like a first cousin to Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) from “Hell or High Water” or retired lawman Ellis (Barry Corbin) from “No Country for Old Men” (2007).

Whoo-hoo!  Geez, let’s give this sheriff more than three minutes of screen time.

Look, there’s nothing horribly wrong with “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, but I can’t help but think about a line that Ellis said to Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).

“What you got ain’t nothing new.”

⭐⭐  out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  Warner Bros. Pictures

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