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Still from Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021): Hannah holds a distressed Connor

Those Who Wish Me Dead: What Is a Neo-Western?

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I’ve always felt the need to defend my love of westerns as a genre, and I think that if the makers of Those Who Wish Me Dead are also primarily western-lovers, they also feel this need. I bring it up because I did see this movie described as a “neo-western” which is an obviously meaningless term. If a story is “neo-western” isn’t also “neo-Civil War” or “neo-Americana” and so on? The point of using neo-western is to indicate that you want people to have a kind of western genre idea in their mind, even though you might not be doing important details associated with westerns. Said another way, describing something as “neo-western” does not necessarily mean that you’re actually constructing something that could be considered a western, it only means that you want people to think of it as a western.

Don’t worry, I do have a point.

The westerns I am most familiar with are spaghetti westerns and Eastwood westerns, though I have watched pretty widely in the genre. When I feel I have to defend my interest in westerns, it’s for the same reason that Those Who Wish Me Dead defends it: because people see westerns as just loving cowboy aesthetics, and we feel compelled to show that westerns are about more than that. However, what I felt separates this film from something that I would truly call a western is not the setting, it is the thrust of the movie. Despite advancing the setting, I think that Those Who Wish Me Dead is only concerned with the aesthetics of the western genre, and for that reason I think that it misses what truly drives westerns as a genre.

Those Who Wish Me Dead centers around a kid who is being hunted by hitmen and a forest firefighter who happens to become his protector. It involves a lot of violence that is very well-done. I think everyone’s performance is good. As far as the plot’s structure goes, the only thing that I felt off about is how lightning was used, oddly enough. Twice, lightning strikes drive the plot forward in ways that are too convenient; for instance, given that touchscreen phones exist in this world, it seems odd that an firefighter would be in a place where lightning would fry all the instruments and have no back-up. However, in their defense, these beats weren’t unnecessary, even if I think there might have been a less-ridiculous way to achieve it. I’m bringing all of these elements to say that none of them are the reason I wouldn’t call this movie a western.

When I defend westerns to people, what I emphasize is that the idea of The West in a western is an area in which people are more on-their-own than they are in so-called civilization. In a city story, someone who wants to stand up for themselves can go find a group, or call on their family, or appeal to authorities, and so on. In The West, these things are less possible. The main players in westerns are always lone figures who embody their entire capacity. Take The Godfather, for instance. Vito Corleone’s power as a mafia boss was not that he himself was the best shot and the toughest guy, it’s that he had control of the mafia and its resources. In A Fistful of Dollars, there is no higher appeal that can be made. There’s no sure help. This sense is not of loneliness, because it is hard to imagine The Man With No Name or Harmonica as truly, sorrowfully lonely. It’s more of solitariness or singularity, of all things in a character being intrinsic to their own person.

Obviously, this idea of solitariness is played with by almost every western. Even the most textbook western story will deviate in some way, because what we put in the textbook is going to be a general sense of the idea, it will not all be drawn from one specific work. However, I think it’s the baseline assumption of the western genre. What makes someone potent as a person is their level of singularity, the amount to which they have all capabilities residing in themselves. To need a family is somewhat weakening, but it’s seen as a worthwhile trade. To need a hive of bandits makes you despicable. The civilization of crowded cities and railroads is always an evil for The West, bringing the kind of society which will always reduce these singular capable beings to something lesser. The threat which white settlers perceived from Native peoples became a test of this potency, one where destroying the Natives while outnumbering them would equal a personal failure.

In reality, a person cannot become a hero by personally murdering a dozen other people. In westerns, especially when considering certain kinds of people as the target, this is possible. I raise this not to try and lessen these acts but only to note it and to argue that, despite the alienating nature of these murders, their function in western-as-genre is at least in part to reinforce the core western idea of solitary/singular. In this way, they are of a piece with encroaching civilization and the hardship of self-sufficiency.

Those Who Wish Me Dead attempts to do this in many ways. Its principal characters — the kid Connor, the firefighter Hannah, the two assassins Jack and Patrick, and the couple Ethan and Allison — all have no important connections. Ethan is a police officer but he could very easily have simply been a known & respected local outdoorsman for all the role it plays in the plot. Hannah is stationed alone in a tower in the middle of the forest for the summer. Without spoiling more, you get what I’m saying: despite this being a modern setting, these characters are as isolated as they can be. I think it’s successful in constructing these isolations, but I think it misses the real beating heart of the solitary/singular concept.

What makes the best westerns memorable, what makes them pulse, is that all the characters are not only familiar with the situation, they are intimately involved in it. Especially for the characters that are actually active in the conflict, their own personal stakes in the actual matter of the situation is what highlights their singular qualities. This is the part where Those Who Wish Me Dead falls down. Almost no one is actually concerned with the main matter of the plot: the secrets which Connor’s dad held. Connor has no idea what the matter could be about really, neither does Hannah. Jack and Patrick do not care about what it’s about: their job is just to kill people. Ethan and Allison both want to protect Connor if they can find him and also to simply stay alive. Everyone’s motivation is on their own track, so they never converge.

The tests in a western story are engaging because they pit the entirety of the wills of various people on achieving the same thing. All of their drives naturally head to the same point. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, Allison would have been perfectly right to simply ride off and try and find other police. Hannah could have just said “uh, okay kid, keep running I guess” when she saw him; she didn’t know that he was alone or that anything had happened. Ethan could have just been like “ahhhh I guess I’ll just keep driving and call in this shot woman, don’t think it’s a good idea to just get out of the car”. No one had to meet. The fact that they do isn’t bad, it demonstrates that they are brave and conscientious people, but it just isn’t the same thing. The desperation that each character feels is not involved with the other characters’ desperation. Every person’s story is their own in a way that doesn’t provide an interesting intersection.

I think that Those Who Wish Me Dead fails to be a western because it doesn’t provide that visceral interest that comes from each character driving ahead this single focal point. What makes everyone meet is the plot, or to be generous, coincidence. Coincidence is a fine driver of plot, too; as long as you don’t break your audience’s engagement, it can be effective. However, since there’s nothing to this plot but coincidence, it just doesn’t grasp what I feel westerns are about. Given what I said above, it may be a neo-western. That is, it might get you in the right mood if you think of it as being an updated western. It’s just let down by isolating all the characters without giving them a converging point.

That paragraph was going to be the final one, but I do think I need to answer a question: why isn’t Connor’s safety the converging point of interest? I don’t think his safety works in that way because the interest that people have in Connor’s safety is not personal. Though Connor is Ethan’s nephew, Ethan never gives the impression that they are very close, he’s not out of his mind with worry, and conceivably Connor could have been anyone’s kid that Ethan just decided to help. The fact that Connor has these secrets is only important because it’s the reason that Jack and Patrick are hunting him. They could have been hunting him for literally any other reason and the story would move the same. The reason Connor’s safety is important is because he’s a person in danger and, more importantly, a child. It doesn’t even rise to the level of “I’m after your bounty”/”I don’t want to die”, because at least in a cheap bounty story the stakes are explicit and known by everyone. In this, it’s very difficult to know if we’re supposed to ultimately be concerned with Connor or the secrets; without going too much longer, both have reasons to discount them, and that just makes the Connor/secrets idea too confused to be effective.

A fine movie, it is not a bad way to spend your time. I simply wanted to highlight why “neo-western” is not especially useful if what you’re after is the major non-aesthetic themes of the genre.

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