Those Who Wish Me A Very Die
On my first trip back to the cinema, Walking Dead brainrot, and another round of my personal mad libs come to life.
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Taylor Sheridan is one of those filmmakers whose career trajectory I’d like to lift and make my own. I, too, would like to spend the rest of my days after recurring roles on Veronica Mars and Sons of Anarchy making neo-westerns featuring Jon Bernthal. It’s the right move to make that’ll get me enough purchasing power to do more than just browse Rightmove with sadness in my eyes.
Sheridan’s latest project, Those Who Wish Me Dead, is an adaptation of Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name following hotshot smokejumper, Hannah (Angelina Jolie), coming to the aid of Connor (Finn Little), a young boy on the run in Montana from two assassins that murdered his father. And I got to see it at a cinema.
As I learned from the film, a smokejumper is a type of firefighter that parachutes down from a plane to put out forest fires and other disasters that cannot be contained. Connor was on his way to a survival training camp run by his uncle Ethan (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff, and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore), before he and his father were ambushed by (what I assume to be) mob killers Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult).
Though not as striking as Wind River or as slick as Sicario, Those Who Wish Me Dead throws Sheridan’s hat into the ring with the best—at least commercially—of them, with the best of the franchise action blockbusters we’ve become oh, so saturated with. It’s right up his alley: a Western about a hot, traumatized white woman filled with tragedy and shrouded in conspiracy.
The conspiracy itself is flimsy, at least in this film. Connor’s father was a forensic accountant that uncovered suspicious activity that got a Florida lawmaker killed in a gas line explosion, and the people that killed that guy were after him next. I actually don’t mind the lack of specificity in the bad guys’ motives, because they were more interesting to follow in the moment anyway. When we first meet the two assassins, Nick Hoult is trailing behind Aiden Gillen, channeling his more sinister-looking dopplegånger Ed Skrein in a bloody polo and hi-vis vest. Throughout the film, those two pose as different government officials to get around and complain about how their superiors don’t support them enough. They know they’re in over their heads. They’re not seemingly indestructible super-spies, they’re just some guys that might not walk away from a gunshot or an explosion. And that was super refreshing.
Speaking of blowing things up, fire is integral to this film. The film opens with the forest fire central to Hannah’s trauma, she’s marred by the failures of freak accidents and the powerlessness that comes with them. Fire from two emergency flares helped Gillen and Hoult ravage the mountainside in search of young Connor. Fire isn’t just an untenable, destructive force demolishing everything in its wake, it also acts as a form of justice. Mother Nature’s intervention. Despite all the damage it had done, the fire eventually caught up with the ones who started it in a very literal way, too neatly wrapped in a bow. Gillen’s character gets hunted down whilst Hoult’s was left to burn alive.
The film itself reminds me of action thrillers from the 90s, of Twister especially where the film’s unique setting or ensemble complements the action sequences; utilizing the terrain, climate, and overall atmosphere into the grandiose set pieces instead of ignoring them. None of the action sequences, at least to me, felt forced. They all felt very down to earth but still kept a dangerous, adrenaline-fueled edge.
After leaving the screening, I scribbled down “the cruelty of man” in my notebook, much to my own dismay. I don’t know, it felt a little cringey to me. A little clichéd. A little too obvious. I mean, that’s what things are when they’re rubbed in your face: obvious. Perhaps it is too obvious to say that the film’s thesis means to use fire as an allegory for corruption, corporate greed (organised crime in the universe of the film has a corporate structure) and karma. Every action has disproportionate and opposite reaction. Where the assassins tried to use fire as a distraction, it ultimately became their downfall. Where Hannah failed prior to the events of the film, this new wildfire, this new child she can help is her second chance at redepemption. Another showdown with her trauma. A chance for her to rise to the occasion and heal. Jolie herself said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight that playing Hannah gave her a chance to reflect on her own journey overcoming adversity and re-descovering her own self-worth.
Jolie came on screen in her bulky jacket, blunt bangs and aviators, going against the wishes of her colleagues and former lover to parachute out of a moving truck. We meet Hannah reckless and unstable, with a deathwish despite resigning to her fate in a fire department watchtower in the middle of nowhere. Her performance reminds me of the current trend in high-calibre actresses disappearing into troubled, yet compelling roles set somewhere in middle America.
This may not be Angelina Jolie’s Mare of Easttown, it is in no way her Sharp Objects, but this could be her Destroyer. Hannah reminds me a lot of Nicole Kidman’s performance in Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer (2019). Where Kidman was driven by vengeance and grief, Jolie was driven by the often more shameful feelings of self-doubt and helplessness. Sheridan even told her to dial back her tenderness when sharing scenes opposite Finn Little, the young Australian actor that plays Connor. Jolie suppressed her natural, nurturing, mothering instincts in favour of a more detached, and reluctant portrayal. This may have not been her best work, and perhaps Angie’s Mare will come another day, but this film reminds audiences that Jolie’s action roots are anchoring themselves deeper, and that they have a little more nuance and are a little more vulnerability than they used to.
Little also held his own against all these heavyweights, delivering a mature and often difficult performance, especially playing someone that’s forced to face adult responsibilities as a child. Towards the end of the film, Connor asks Hannah what will happen to him next, and not just in the next few hours, but tomorrow, the month after, or even in a year. Hannah, still unsure of where she herself stands, reassures him that they’ll figure it out together; their journey together not culminating there just yet.
Though they don’t share a lot of screen time together, when Jolie is opposite Jon Bernthal, I could not and would not look away. Where Bernthal is tough but fair, Jolie is unassuming and playful. From my usual gossip blog-y drivel I write on here, I can always appreciate when a casting director is smart enough to create a combination of people so sexy that I lose my goddamn mind. At the screening I attended, there were only seven other people; four out of which were couples, and the remaining three were girls my age who I assume were there for the same reason: Jon Bernthal.
I could talk about Jon Bernthal forever. When I was younger and obsessed with The Walking Dead, I always hated his character, Shane, but I didn’t realise it then that that was how I was meant to feel about him. Bernthal is so good at his job that he can make you feel for him, hate him, and still want to bat your eyelashes at him. Shane was a despicable hotheaded cop, and in Those Who Wish Me Dead, Bernthal plays yet another cop, but one without Shane’s near-homicidal jealousy. Do his agents now this man is much too attractive to be playing pigs? Regardless, his portrayal of Ethan in this film has a certain tenderness to it. A tenderness I haven’t seen just yet from his other roles.
Ethan has a specific nobility, grace, and restraint that perhaps Shane nor Frank Castle in Netflix’s The Punisher had to them. I fear the spirit of Rick Grimes possessed this incarnation of Bernthal’s sheriff character. Not to discount Bernthal’s own spin on this archetype, but I can’t help make the comparison. I think it’s the hair. There’s this one scene where Ethan covers up Connor’s tracks and provokes the two assassins into shooting him, creating a small window for him to attack them. In that moment and the rest of his time in the film, Bernthal’s character grapples with the uncertainty of his own survival, but risks all of that for someone else’s.
Bernthal still carries his signature grit, smolder, and unwavering versatility into this role, but good God—every time I saw him, my brain broke out into song. It was singing SZA’s infamous riff from The Weekend: “My man is my man, is your man, heard that’s her man, too.” This is a happily married man with beautiful children. This is a man that’s best friends with Steven Yeun. This is the man that can play the abusive douche as well has he can play the doting partner. This is a man that was Elizabeth Debicki’s husband in Widows. This is a man, a performer, that is as raw and macho as he is vulnerable.
I feel SZA’s sentiment in my bones.
The breakout performance for me in this film was Medina Senghore’s role as Allison, Ethan’s wife who runs the survivalist camp Connor was running to. She’s as gentle as she is resourceful, and as loving as she is ruthless. Allison delivers the final blow to Jack (Aiden Gillen), who spent most of the film trying to kill anyone that saw his and Patrick’s faces, including Allison and her husband. She skillfully alerts her husband to their presence using a code word over the phone, she sets her attackers alight using a can of pepperspray and an assist from her burning fireplace, and she gets on a horse six months pregnant to rescue her husband from his captors. Yee fucking haw. She’s the real cowboy in all of this.
Allison defends her and her family’s right to live, but there’s a moment right before the fire burns through the watchtower where she turns to Ethan and says: “Baby, nothing survives that.” She then helps him put a gas mask on and taking his hand in hers, a quiet acceptance of their unfortunate fate. She’ll fight until she knows there won’t be a fight at all. Fortunately for her and her baby, Allison survives. When Ethan succumbs to his gunshot wounds, Allison remains soft but stoic. Her chemistry with Bernthal was wonderful to watch, they really kept the film and their relationship grounded.
I am usually a fan of jumpscares when they’re done well. This film has its share of tense moments but there was one jumpscare I did not appreciate: Tyler Perry’s. Perry not only has a producer credit on this film—Lord knows if Meghan Markle was in his house when he was working on this project—but he also shows up briefly midway as Jack and Patrick’s boss. The random mob boss? Businessman? Whatever he is, he’s allegedly pulling the strings behind everything. I find that hard to believe.
As much as I enjoyed this film, I wish it was grittier. I wish it was shot like an HBO miniseries, or the autumnal counterpart to Wind River. Visually, it felt distant and lacklustre. Average. I wish all their clothes were dirtier, were singed and burned in the right places to look lived in instead of almost brand-spanking new. Those Who Wish Me Dead toed the line between hollow and entertaining.
I kept thinking about how difference my experience would have been if I had seen this film at home, on demand somehow. I probably wouldn’t have been on the edge of my seat, starting and stopping to tend to other things in my house. In the cinema, I was genuinely on the edge of my seat, scared for some of these characters and flinching, covering my already mask-covered face from secondhand pain or embarrassment.
God, I missed, in Vin Diesel’s words, The Movies.
One of the best parts about going to see this film in cinemas was the utter privilege in experiencing trailers on the big screen again. I saw the In The Heights trailer again. I saw the trailer for Jessica Chastain’s very own John Wick, Ava, which also stars John Malkovich, Collin Farrel, and to my own surprise, Diana Silvers.
Most importantly, I saw the F9: The Fast Saga trailer in all its vroom vroom, skrrt skrrt glory. It was prefaced with an introduction from John Cena and Sung Kang, two cast members I’m most excited about seeing in that film. They both said some Indonesian phrases, and encouraged audiences to remain optimistic about the state of the pandemic and how it’s still impacting the film industry. When Vin Diesel said “nothing bounces back like The Movies”, I got goosebumps. Chills, even.
All in all, I really hope I get to go to the cinema again. I might take my brother to see F9 or Mortal Kombat for his birthday. But until then, I hope we all get to bounce back just like The Movies. I hope you get to see Those Who Wish Me Dead too. I hope this pandemic doesn’t wish me, or any of us really, dead either.
Those Who Walk Me Dead
Much like the zombies on The Walking Dead, I am experiencing severe brainrot.
I don’t have the mindless urge to feast on human flesh (I’m pescatarian again and I ain’t no Armie Hammer), but this show—one of the biggest advents of television in the last decade—has come to vacation in my prefrontal cortex and is overstaying its visitor visa. I’m not complaining. I actually forgot how much I loved this show growing up. Sure, the consensus now is that it’s repetitive and predictable, but I love that shit too! I put on Community episodes to help me fall asleep every night and talk about repetitive and predictable behaviour! I grew up watching a ton of anime, I’m actually very accustomed to filler episodes!
Coming off the back of my own predictable and repetitive behaviour, I’ve naturally consumed nearly every late-night appearance, Comic-Con panel, and funny moments compilation YouTube has had to offer featuring the cast of The Walking Dead. I’ve also started watching Ride with Norman Reedus, the travel show where the titular Norman Reedus, who plays my beloved crossbow-weilding Daryl Dixon on TWD, explores the world with a friend or two on motorcycles. So far I’m on Season 3, where he takes castmates Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Steven Yeun, and Melissa McBride across England, the Bay Area, and Scotland respectively.
I find Reedus’ career eternally fascinating. At least how his career came to be. He got discovered drunkenly screaming at a party, getting him cast in a production of Maps for Travellers at the now-defunct Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles. He had followed a girl to LA from Tokyo and Spain where he was working as an artist, then got a job at a Harley Davidson garage and went on to become a music video muse to the likes of Radiohead, Bjork, and Keith Richards. His first film role came in Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, and eventually led him to that big Prada campaign alongside the likes of Joaquin Phoenix in 1997. What I’m most fascinated by is his appearance as the eponymous Judas in Lady Gaga’s Judas music video.
It makes me wonder, what got Gaga on the Reedus train? Did she happen to see The Boondock Saints? Is she, like me, completely baffled as to why he who Honest Trailers called the sexiest redneck in Georgia has a je ne sais quoi about him that she just can’t shake? Was she moved when Daryl had to kill Merle (Michael Rooker) in the penultimate episode of The Walking Dead season three? We’ll never know. What we do know is that in an interview for SiriusXM, Reedus said that he had met Gaga’s then-boyfriend at a bar and was pelting sushi at him for some reason. Not long after that incident, he got a call from Gaga’s team about starring in the Judas video. And the rest was history.
I don’t know why it took me so long to clock Reedus’ appearance in this video as someone who grew up watching The Walking Dead around the same time they were upset, as a Little Monster, with a certain far-right Islamic group for protesting a Lady Gaga concert to the point where she had to cancel her Jakarta dates.
I was also reminded of the following series of images, where Reedus was photographed backstage at Saturday Night Live in 2014 during Amy Adams’ episode, with musical guest One Direction.
It’s a round of my very own personal madlibs, with Louis and Harry being the members of 1D he’s photographed with no less. Tomlinson and Reedus had been compared to one another at some point, I remember that being a thing on Tumblr. I both don’t see it and can’t stop seeing it. It’s the cheekbones and the hair.
That’s all for this week! See you next time. Free Palestine. And happy Pride.