THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD (2021)

May 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Taylor Sheridan was Oscar nominated for his screenplay of the superb HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016). He also wrote and directed WIND RIVER (2017), wrote the screenplays for both SICARIO movies, and is the creative force behind the TV series “Yellowstone”. He has excelled in generating slow-burn tension and conflict. For his latest film, he’s back in the director’s chair after co-writing the script with Charles Leavitt (BLOOD DIAMOND, 2006) and the 2014 novel’s author, Michael Koryta.

Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah, a thrill-seeking smokejumper (those folks who jump out of airplanes to fight fires and save lives) burdened with a faulty decision that cost lives in a massive forest fire the previous year. After flunking her psyche-evaluation, Hannah packs up the blame and her flashbacks and accepts her low-key assignment to the solitude of “Fire Tower”, a lookout perched above the tree line of Soda Butte, a park area within Yellowstone that encompasses the Continental Divide. Early on we see the camaraderie of the smokejumpers as they tease each other and “welcome” the new firefighters to the park.

In a seemingly unrelated storyline (although we know the intersection is coming), Owen (Jake Weber, “Medium”) and his son Connor (Finn Little) take an emergency detour on the way to school. Owen is a forensic accountant who uncovered some corruption while working for a Florida DA who was recently murdered by the same hitmen now chasing Owen and his son. Soon, Connor is wandering alone through the forest looking for someone he can trust, and up pops Hannah. The pair of calm-cool-collected hitmen are played by Aidan Gillen (“Game of Thrones”) and Nicholas Hoult (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, 2015). They track down Owen’s brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal, BABY DRIVER, 2017), who happens to work for the sheriff’s department in the same park.

Whether you call it a hunt or a chase, it’s always a bit creepy when professional hitmen are tracking down an innocent kid, and the tension is elevated when we see the bad guys take their direction from a higher-up bad buy played by Tyler Perry in one brief scene. The film features a hand full of excellent action sequences, including a shootout between the hitmen and Ethan’s pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore). Conveniently, Allison runs a survivor camp, and despite her belly, manages to put up quite a fight.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, 2012) capitalizes on the extraordinary vastness and beauty of Soda Butte, and some of the forest fire effects are so good we can almost feel the heat. The supporting cast is excellent and the multiple story lines all work together nicely. For me, what prevented the film from reaching the level it could have, was the presence and performance of Angelina Jolie. Her last action movie was SALT in 2010, and here she seems too concerned with a look of glamor – right down to consistently brushed hair and perfect make-up – than fitting the profile of the courageous (and slightly off-center) smokejumpers. She stands out from the others on the team not because of her inherent extreme risk-taking, but rather because of her magazine-cover approach – something not limited to the hair and make-up, but also her posing and preening, including many of the same gazes from other movies like GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS (2000). I often admire and respect the choices actors make, but in this case, those choices work against everything else in what could have been an excellent dramatic thriller.

Now available on HBO Max

WATCH THE TRAILER


WIND RIVER (2017)

August 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With his two most recent screenplays, Sicario (2015) and the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan seemed acutely attuned to the fine line between right and wrong, and the twisted complexity of new age American values when contrasted with “old school”. This time out, he both writes and directs. The themes remain familiar while the landscape shifts to the frozen tundra of Wyoming.

We first meet Fish & Wildlife Service tracker/hunter Cory (Jeremy Renner) as he picks off (with a long range rifle) a pack of wolves that is methodically encircling goats on a ranch. A very similar type situation plays out later in the film … only with humans in place of wolves and sheep. Not long after dispensing with the wolves, Cory stumbles upon the barefoot corpse of a young girl he recognizes as the former best friend of his daughter. Her frost-bitten bare feet visible, face buried in the snow, bleeding from an apparent assault, and miles from the nearest house or dwelling, the girl’s corpse is telling a story that Cory knows requires the immediate attention of law enforcement.

Ben, the Native American Reservation Police Chief (Graham Greene) has jurisdiction unless the Medical Examiner rules it a homicide. In the meantime, FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up dressed more for winter in her native Florida than the brutally cold Wyoming plains. Jane quickly proves she is no ordinary “fish out of water” (even if she lacks experience for such a case), and commissions Cory to help her out with the local people and land.

The film has many ties to the fine TV series “Longmire”, and though Mr. Renner and Ms. Olsen are well known in the Marvel Universe as Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, there are no superheroes present here – just a convoluted society within a seemingly forgotten (or at least) ignored part of the country. It’s a police procedural blanketed in the always-falling snow, an underground drug culture, and the quiet animosity between the outside world and the Reservation (where many have given up hope).

These aren’t people that talk much, although they say plenty. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit too obvious in Mr. Sheridan’s goal of leaving no viewer behind, especially when combined with overly detailed flashback that will have the amateur sleuths in the audience feeling a bit letdown in receiving a full explanation. However, when cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Fault in Our Stars) loses the shaky-cam from indoors, and beautifully lays out the vastness of the snow vistas, forest and mountains, the remoteness and stunning landscape becomes a character as important as any other.

The supporting cast is stellar and features Julia Jones, Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water), Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, and a crazed James Jordan. Mr. Greene adds a touch of deadpan humor and resignation to his plight, while Ms. Olsen is effective as the ‘green’ agent dealing with an unfamiliar white-out. Mr. Renner truly excels as the throwback cowboy carrying out his duties while bearing a burden exacerbated by this case. The crunching snow, predatory lions, and high-speed snowmobiling never cause us (or Cory) to lose sight of how important it is to know the land and the people … and walk that line between right and wrong.

watch the trailer: