Review: ‘Father Stu,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

April 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mark Wahlberg in “Father Stu” (Photo by Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

“Father Stu”

Directed by Rosalind Ross

Culture Representation: Taking place from the mid-1990s to late 2000s in Los Angeles and Helena, Montana, the dramatic film “Father Stu” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A washed-up amateur boxer, who has a history of committing violence and other crimes, moves from Montana to Los Angeles to become an actor, but he ends up becoming a priest. 

Culture Audience: “Father Stu” will appeal primarily to fans of star Mark Wahlberg and people who like formulaic dramas about toxic masculinity where men are excused and forgiven for things that women would not be allowed to get away with as easily.

Jacki Weaver, Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson in “Father Stu” (Photo by Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

Boring and predictable, “Father Stu” is yet another film in Mark Wahlberg’s long list of one-note movies where he plays a foul-mouthed jerk who’s promoted as heroic. It’s another “toxic male who needs to be redeemed” story that does nothing new or clever. This tired retread has the word “flop” written all over it.

“Father Stu” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Rosalind Ross, who pollutes this movie with a lot of corny dialogue and cringeworthy scenarios. “Father Stu” is based on a true story, but so much of this biographical film looks phony because of the contrived ways that the characters speak and act. And the movie looks like it was made by people who’ve seen too many outdated TV-movie dramas and decided to rehash and dump the same formulas into this dreadful dud.

In “Father Stu,” Wahlberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) plays Stuart “Stu” Long, an aggressively obnoxious loser who decides to commit to Catholicism and becomes a priest after experiencing a health crisis. The movie takes place from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, when the real Long was in his early 30s to mid-40s, although Wahlberg never looks convincing as someone in his 30s.

“Father Stu” starts off in Stu’s hometown of Helena, Montana, where he is an amateur boxer who’s never made it into the big leagues. While in his early 30s, Stu is seen in a doctor’s appointment with his devoted and sometimes sarcastic mother Kathleen Long (played by Jacki Weaver), when they get some bad news: The doctor says that Stu’s boxing injuries are life-threatening, and he will die if he doesn’t quit boxing.

Stu takes his anger out on his mother, by berating her for having him at this doctor’s appointment where Stu got news that he didn’t want to hear. When she tactfully tells Stu that she’s heard about an oil rig job that’s hiring, Stu snaps at her: “I ain’t doing no blue-collar bullshit!” Meanwhile, Stu (who is a bachelor with no children) hasn’t really figured out what he’s going to do to earn an income.

Even though “Father Stu” is written and directed by a woman, this stale excuse for a movie repeats all the clichés of misogynistic movies where women with significant speaking roles only exist as a banal “mother” or “love interest,” rarely with fully formed personalities. In these sexist movies, all of the action revolves around men, and the women are just there to react to whatever the men do. And that’s exactly what happens in “Father Stu.”

Soon after his boxing career ends, Stu decides he wants to move to Los Angeles and become an actor. (In real life, Stuart Long moved to Los Angeles in 1987, when he was 24.) Before Stu moves to L.A., he visits the grave of his younger brother Stephen Long, who died in 1971, at the age of 5 years old. (Stephen’s death is eventually talked about in more details.) It’s at this point, in this movie’s graveyard scene, that you know the filmmakers are going to use this tragic death as a way to garner sympathy for Stu and all the offensive and selfish things that he does.

While a drunken Stu is at the grave, he hallucinates seeing himself as a boy of about 9 or 10 years old (played by Tenz McCall), in a hokey moment that’s supposed to make viewers literally see Stu’s inner child. The adult Stu gets angry and punches a nearby statue of Jesus Christ. And just at that moment, a police car drives up. Viewers don’t see what happened between Stu and any cop on the scene, but it’s shown later that Stu was arrested for resisting arrest. The movie goes out of its way to erase or gloss over any crimes that he commits.

Instead, Stu is presented as someone who goes through life insulting others and who doesn’t hesitate to bully people to get what he wants. The movie tries to excuse his awfulness by showing that Stu comes from an emotionally damaged family: Stu’s younger brother died tragically, and Stu’s parents are estranged from each other. Stu is infuriated at his father for being what Stu calls a “deadbeat dad.” Stu is a lot more like his father than Stu would care to admit.

Stu’s father William “Bill” Long (played by Mel Gibson) is a truck driver, who passed on a lot of his bad personality traits to Stu. They are both crude, ill-tempered and quick to instigate fights where they curse at people or get violent. (And yes, you can do a countdown to the inevitable scene where Stu gets in a bar fight.) Stu’s mother Kathleen has gotten fed up with Bill, so they are no longer living together.

As an example of how “Father Stu” rips off familiar territory, Gibson and Wahlberg did another version of this “rude father and son” schtick in the 2017 annoying comedy film “Daddy’s Home 2.” Gibson is also probably in “Father Stu” because of his romantic relationship with “Father Stu” writer/director Ross. The couple began dating in 2014.

One thing that Stu’s parents both agree on is that Stu’s goal of becoming a professional actor is a foolish and unlikely dream. And sure enough, when Stu moves to L.A. and makes the rounds at talent agencies, he’s rejected. Viewers don’t see a lot of these rejections, but Stu mentions it in a scene where a lecherous male agent sexually propositions Stu when the two of them are alone together in the agent’s office. An angry Stu then roughs up this sexual predator and breaks a video camera in the office before slamming the door when he leaves.

Stu can’t get work as an actor, so he takes a job working behind the meat counter at a grocery store. In his desperate attempts to break into showbiz and make connections, Stu has an irritating and unprofessional habit of asking customers while he’s working if they’re in the entertainment business. It’s at this grocery store where he meets Carmen (played by Teresa Ruiz), a devoutly religious Catholic who becomes Stu’s love interest before he becomes a priest. It’s infatuation at first sight for Stu, who tries to flirt with Carmen when they first meet, but she’s not impressed.

“I didn’t catch your name,” Stu tells Carmen before she walks away. “You’re not much of a fisherman,” Carmen says coyly, as if she thinks it’s hilarious to make a reference to the phrase “fisherman’s catch.” This is the type of dumb dialogue in “Father Stu” that will have audiences rolling their eyes at how cornball this movie is.

Carmen left behind a church flyer with the store manager, so that’s how Stu finds out where Carmen goes to church. Soon enough, Stu shows up at the church like a stalker, and that’s how he discovers that Carmen is a Sunday school teacher at this Catholic church. At this point in Stu’s life, he’s a lapsed Catholic. Guess who’s going to be a regular attendee of this church? Guess who’s now going to want to look like a devoted Catholic? It’s Stu’s way of trying to charm Carmen into dating him.

Stu tells people that Carmen is “the love of his life” and his “future wife” shortly after meeting her. One of these people is the church’s Father Garcia (played by Carlos Leal), who is skeptical about Stu’s interest in Catholicism, but nevertheless has to listen to Stu’s rambling, self-indulgent diatribes when Stu does confessionals with Father Garcia. These confession scenes are very tiresome and have all the emotional resonance of air being let out of a windbag.

Carmen slowly falls for Stu, but then he gets into a horrific motorcycle accident where he is struck by a car and nearly dies. During his recovery, Stu and Carmen begin a sexual relationship, and she seriously starts to think that they will get married. But not so fast, Carmen. Stu has a religious epiphany and tells Carmen that he wants to become a priest during a conversation that she thought would be a marriage proposal to her. None of this is spoiler information, of course, because anyone who’s aware of this movie’s title should know what Stu’s vocation ends up being.

Carmen doesn’t take the news well at all. “You’re setting yourself up for failure,” Carmen tells Stu. She also calls Stu “delusional,” as she tearfully ends this conversation. But Carmen’s feelings are sidelined because the movie is on a mission to show the dubious redemption of Stu, as he goes from being a rough-talking hooligan to a rough-talking priest.

Stu’s father Bill also thinks Stu’s decision to become a priest is some kind of pathetic joke, just like the line that Bill delivers when he hears the news. Bill reacts to the news of Stu wanting to join the Roman Catholic priesthood by saying: “It’s like Hitler asking to join the ADL [Anti-Defamation League].” Considering that Gibson nearly ruined his career and permanently tarnished his reputation with his anti-Semitic rant during his 2006 arrest for drunk driving, it’s in very bad taste to have him tell a Hitler “joke” in a movie.

“Father Stu” then has numerous trite scenes where Stu is shown as a seminary “misfit” who’s determined to prove his naysayers wrong. Among those who don’t think that Stu has what it takes to become a priest is an uptight and pious seminary student (played by Cody Fern), who is the opposite of Stu in almost every way. Predictably, these two are forced to share the same sleeping quarters when they’re assigned to be roommates in their seminary.

Stu also shows that he’s racist against black people, when he expresses some bigoted points of view while interacting with an African American seminary student named Ham (played by Aaron Moten), who is a lot more patient with Stu than Stu deserves. Ham is essentially one of many characters who let Stu walk all over them and manipulate them. When Stu first meets Ham, he ridicules Ham for his name. Stu is so ignorant, he thinks the name Ham is some kind of “ethnic” thing.

Later, when Stu gets Ham to play basketball with him in their free time, Stu mocks Ham for not being as good at basketball as Stu expected. Stu literally says in the movie that he thinks Ham should be better at basketball because Ham is black. The scene is played for laughs, but it’s a putrid, tone-deaf scene where Stu never gets called out for his racism.

In addition to having a roommate that he despises, Stu also contends with a supervising teacher named Monsignor Kelly (played by Malcolm McDowell), who is a stereotypical stern priest who wants everyone to be as strictly religious as he is. Not surprisingly, Monsignor Kelly doubts that Stu is really serious about becoming a priest, so the two men inevitably clash with each other.

Time and time again, “Father Stu” spins Stu’s boorishness as being a freewheeling rogue who’s an underdog and underestimated by people around him. However, it just exposes the sexism in many aspects of society. After all, women who are this loathsome and violent probably wouldn’t be allowed to become Catholic nuns. And if they did, they certainly don’t get movies made about them.

“Father Stu” is essentially a vanity showcase for Wahlberg to play the same type of character that he’s been playing for years: cranky, argumentative and quick to step on people to get what he wants. Everyone else in “Father Stu” is just a two-dimensional sidekick in this tedious parade of enabling toxic masculinity, where the man who’s supposed to be redeemed gets many chances to turn his life around, while audiences are supposed to be cheering for him every step of the way. Needless to say, nothing about this movie is award-worthy, and lot of it is just a chore to watch.

Of course, the redemption of Stu also comes with a life-threatening disease: inclusion body myositis, so that audiences can feel even more sympathy for him. Unfortunately, in “Father Stu,” this disease is used as just another plot device to prop up Stu’s redemption arc. “Father Stu” is essentially a half-baked project that looks like a second-rate TV-movie. It certainly isn’t worth watching for the price of a movie ticket.

Columbia Pictures will release “Father Stu” in U.S. cinemas on April 13, 2022.

UPDATE: A new, PG-13 version of “Father Stu” will be released under the title “Father Stu: Reborn” in U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022. The original version of “Father Stu” is rated R.

Review: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee

December 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”

Directed by Jane Campion

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”

The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:

  • Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
  • George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
  • Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
  • Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.

Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.

Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.

Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.

Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.

Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.

Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.

During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.

Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.

Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.

And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.

There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.

Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.

Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.

Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.

You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.

A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)

People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.

Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.

All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.

Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?

It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.

Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.

It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.

Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Montana Story,’ starring Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague

September 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Haley Lu Richardson and Owen Teague in “Montana Story” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Montana Story”

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana’s Paradise Valley, the drama “Montana Story” features a cast of white and Native American characters (with one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An estranged brother and sister have a tension-filled reunion after their father is in a coma, and the two siblings end up confronting some dark family secrets.

Culture Audience: “Montana Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and realistically crafted dramas about dysfunctional families.

Owen Teague and Haley Lu Richardson in “Montana Story” (Photo courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival)

“Montana Story” shows in nuanced and heartbreaking ways how a rift in a family can come not just from damaging words and actions but also by what’s been left unsaid. It’s an emotionally genuine and contemplative story of a tense family reunion between a brother and a sister who have not seen and spoken to each other in seven years. The movie also touches on issues of euthanasia, controversies over pipelines running through Native American land, and the daily struggles of working-class people who are a few paychecks away from financial ruin. “Montana Story”—written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel—had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The movie unfolds in layers to reveal the reasons why siblings Cal (played by Owen Teague) and Erin (played by Haley Lu Richardson) have been estranged for seven years. The full story of why Cal and Erin became alienated from each other comes out about halfway through the film. Cal and Erin have both reunited at the Montana ranch of their widowed attorney father Wade (played by Rob Story), who has been in a coma from a stroke and is not expected to recover. Although the movie does not name any cities where the story takes place, “Montana Story” was filmed on location in Montana’s Paradise Valley, in the cities of Bozeman, Livingston and Ringling. The movie’s cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens) of this Montana outdoor scenery is suitably breathtaking.

The ranch where Wade is bedridden in a coma is the same home where Cal and Erin grew up. Cal, who is 22, is a quiet and introverted bachelor who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He’s an aspiring civil engineer who currently works for Cheyenne’s city planning department. Cal arrives at the family home first by driving there in his own car. Cal doesn’t know it yet, but Erin is about to show up for a surprise visit.

Erin, who is 25, is a feisty and stubborn bachelorette who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. She works as a cook at a farm-to-table restaurant, and she is deeply concerned about environmental issues. Erin has traveled by airplane to go to Montana and doesn’t have a rental car. She uses a rideshare service to go to and from the airport.

It’s mentioned later in the story that Cal and Erin have two different mothers, who are both deceased. These two mothers are not shown in flashbacks but are briefly described in the movie through conversations. Erin’s mother Libby, who was Wade’s wife, died when she gave birth to Erin. Libby is described as the greatest love of Wade’s life.

Cal’s mother Connie was the nanny who took care of Erin after Libby died. Connie, who died in a car accident two years ago, is described as someone who knew that Wade didn’t love her as much as he loved Libby, but Connie loved Wade anyway. Connie and Wade never married each other, but they lived together and raised Erin and Cal.

Before Erin shows up for her surprise visit, Cal braces himself for some of the difficult but inevitable experiences of a family member who has to prepare for a loved one to die. When Cal goes inside the home, he doesn’t immediately go into the bedroom where Wade is in a coma, because it will be the first time that Cal will see his father in this condition. Instead, Cal goes into his childhood bedroom, which has been kept exactly the way he left it when he moved out of the family home to go to college in Wyoming. The way he looks around the room is the way someone might look at a mausoleum filled with long-buried memories.

When Cal does go into the room to see his father (who is hooked up to a ventilating machine), the expression on Cal’s face shows a range of emotions. It’s the look of someone who’s had a love/hate relationship with a parent and doesn’t quite know how to process that this parent is unable to communicate. How do you reconcile with someone who’s in a coma?

There are two people who have been taking care of the day-to-day duties of the household. The part-time housekeeper Valentina (played by Kimberly Guerrero) has been a longtime employee of the family. Valentina has known Erin and Cal since they were children. Wade’s home care aide, who is being paid for by state government assistance, is a Kenyan immigrant named Ace (played by Gilbert Owuor). Cal and Ace meet for the first time when Cal comes home to visit Wade, who isn’t expected to live much longer.

Valentina and Ace are very kind and compassionate. Ace tells Cal that although Wade is in a coma and cannot communicate, Wade’s brain is still functioning. It’s this piece of information that probably motivates Cal to do something in one of the more emotionally powerful scenes in the movie.

Wade used to be a financially successful attorney. But something happened (some of the details are revealed but not all) that resulted in him filing for bankruptcy before he had a stroke. It’s why all of his medical bills are being paid for by government benefits and why the family ranch (which is in Wade’s name) is going to be sold after Wade dies. Wade apparently has no other immediate relatives besides his two children.

Cal has to meet with an attorney named Don (played by played by John Ludin) to gets these matters sorted. Don tells Wade that the sale of the ranch should be enough to pay for Wade’s medical bills that would have to be paid by any heirs. Don advises Cal to sell Wade’s car, since the car is no longer of any use to Wade.

The ranch used to be thriving and had several animals, including horses. There are still a few remaining animals, such as chickens, but now there is only one horse on the property: a 25-year-old black stallion named Mr. T. Because of Mr. T’s advanced age and arthritis, it’s unlikely that anyone will buy the horse, so Cal takes Don’s advice to arrange for Mr. T to get euthanized.

When Erin arrives at the ranch, Cal is in complete shock. It’s revealed that Erin had run away from home at age 18 and cut off contact with all of her family members. Cal had tried to get in touch with her, but she eventually changed her phone number and never told anyone in her family where she was.

When she sees Cal again all these years later, Erin is cold and abrupt. She explains the only reason why she’s there is to see their father one last time before he dies. How did Erin find out about Wade being in a coma? Cal asks this question and Erin tells him. (The answer won’t be revealed in this review.)

As the two siblings spend time together in an already stressful situation, long-simmering resentments come to the surface. Viewers will notice that Erin and Cal have different ways of dealing with problems. Erin is more outspoken and determined to do what she thinks is right, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. Cal is more willing to compromise and is more likey to be a people pleaser.

It’s why Erin and Cal end up clashing over what to do about Mr. T, the family’s longtime horse. Erin is livid that Cal made plans to put down Mr. T. She’s so angry about it that she insists that she’s going to buy a truck and horse trailer and drive Mr. T all the way back to New York state with her. Of course, Erin and Cal’s arguments about the horse are just symptoms of a larger problems and traumatic family secrets, which the siblings eventually have to confront if they have a chance of healing their fractured relationship.

Although “Montana Story” is centered on Erin and Cal, the movie also brings up issues experienced by the supporting characters who are feeling the ripple effects of what will happen to them after Wade dies. Valentina has another part-time job at a retail store, which has just reduced her work hours. Based on worried conversations that Valentina has, she’s in danger of being financially ruined if she doesn’t have another job lined up in time after Wade dies.

And even though Ace is being paid by the state, he too is in a precarious financial situation because it’s unknown where he will find his next home care job. In a conversation that Ace has with Cal, Ace opens up about needing a steady job because he sends some of his income back to Kenya to help his family. It’s in these quiet moments that the movie shows how lives of working-class “gig” employees are often dangerously close to sinking them into poverty under unfortunate circumstances.

“Montana Story” also includes a brief snippet of a newscast reporting that a federal judge ordered the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The newscast mentions that this shutdown is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which opposed the pipeline because of concerns that the pipeline would cause pollution in the water and land where many of the tribe members live. It just so happens that Vivian and her family are part of this tribe, so the pipeline is another added stress in her life.

Vivian has an adult son named Joey (played by Asivak Koostachin), who’s about the same age as Erin. Because of Valentina, Joey has known Erin and Cal for several years. Joey used to work at the ranch and now works part-time for a tow truck company, but he’s also hurting for money. Joey and Cal are happy to see each other. Joey is disappointed to hear that the ranch will be sold, but he understands why the decision was made.

Joey is also delighted to see Erin because it’s obvious that he’s had a longtime crush on her, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Erin has put Joey in the “friend zone,” which he has accepted, but his hopeful demeanor is of someone who still thinks there’s a small chance that Erin might change her mind. Another tribe member named Mukki (played by Eugene Brave Rock) ends up playing an important role in Erin’s plans for Mr. T.

“Montana Story” isn’t an action-packed movie. It moves along at a pace that’s entirely realistic for rural and isolated areas. And this isn’t a melodramatic and talkative movie where people get into arguments every 10 minutes. What makes “Montana Story” better than the average family drama is how it uses moments of silence to depict unspoken hurt and regrets.

For example, there’s a scene where Cal and Erin are driving somewhere in Cal’s car. He fills her in on what his life has been like since they last saw each other. Cal seems very eager to share this information, and there’s a sense that he wants Erin’s approval. But she doesn’t say anything in response to finding out these major updates in his life. Her lack of response seems to be partly out of spite and partly because she doesn’t really know what to say. The look on Cal’s face is of someone who is crushed by his sister’s aloofness.

And that’s why Richardson and Teague are so perfectly cast for this movie, which has just the right tone and direction from writer/directors McGehee and Siegel. There are so many moments in “Montana Story” where Richardson and Teague convey emotions (and repression of emotions) with their facial expressions and body language that other actors wouldn’t be able to convey, even if they had all these feelings spelled out for them in articulate lines of dialogue. Without the admirable performances of Richardson and Teague, “Montana Story” would not be as emotionally resonant as it is.

“Montana Story” could be described as understated or low-key, compared to other dramas about family members dealing with grudges and estrangement. In addition to the siblings’ issues with each other, Cal and Erin had a very difficult relationship with their father. Those hard feelings don’t automatically disappear when someone is close to death. It’s an uncomfortable truth that “Montana Story” shows in various shades and details that don’t have a single moment of “only in a movie” phoniness.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Montana Story” in select U.S. cinemas on May 13, 2022. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 will release the movie outside of North America, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead,’ starring Angelina Jolie

May 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Finn Little and Angelina Jolie in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead”

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains area and briefly in Florida, the dramatic film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil smokejumper unexpectedly finds herself trying to protect a 12-year-old boy who is being targeted by assassins. 

Culture Audience: “Those Who Wish Me Dead” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but suspenseful thrillers.

Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a life-or-death chase thriller that brings plenty of predictability, but there’s more than enough suspense and credible acting to make up for some of the far-fetched and formulaic aspects of the film. It’s entertainment that doesn’t demand a lot of intellectual analysis—but that’s a big part of the movie’s appeal. It’s not pretentious and it’s exactly the type of movie that you think it is.

Directed by Taylor Sheridan, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name. Sheridan, Koryta and Charles Leavitt co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, which doesn’t waste a lot of time before the story’s mayhem starts. The movie isn’t cluttered with too many characters, so viewers will find it easy to understand what’s happening.

In “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” Angelina Jolie depicts a smokejumper named Hannah, who lives and works in Montana’s remote Beartooth Mountains area, in Park County. She’s in a very male-dominated job and doesn’t want to be just like “one of the guys”—she wants to outdo all of the guys. And when they joke around with each other, she’s more than up for their raunchy humor.

The beginning of the movie shows that Hannah is quite the daredevil. She parachutes from the back of a moving truck. And she’s quickly arrested for it by Park County’s sheriff deputy Ethan (played by Jon Bernthal), who happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Hannah’s. Her parachute stunt is a misdemeanor, so Hannah is able to easily bail herself out of jail.

Ethan is happily married to Allison (played by Medina Senghore), who is six months pregnant with their first child. Allison, with Ethan’s help, used to run the Soda Butte Survival School for people who want to learn how to survive in the wilderness. Ethan and Allison are going to need a lot of survival skills later in the movie.

Hannah (who is not married, has no children and lives alone) gives the appearance of being a carefree daredevil. But underneath, she’s in a lot of emotional pain. She’s traumatized by a fire that happened in the previous year. During this fire, she and her co-workers could not save three boys from a fiery death because the fire was too intense.

Hannah still has nightmares of witnessing the children die. And it’s implied that she has post-traumatic stress disorder because of this tragedy. Hannah lives and works in a house-like observation center that’s built on a high tower that allows her to look out for smoke from far-away, elevated places.

Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two men show up at the front door of the home of a district attorney named Thomas, whose wife Maggie (played by Laura Niemi) answers the door. One man (who’s wearing a business suit) is in his early 50s and identifies himself as working with the fire department. The other man (dressed in a utilties company uniform) is in his 30s and is identified as working with Florida Gas.

The men don’t say their first names, but tell Maggie that they are investigating a computer alert of a gas leak in the house. They ask if her husband is there, and Maggie says yes, but he’s in the shower. And then the two men ask if they can come inside to inspect the house for a possible gas leak. Maggie (who should know better, since she’s married to a district attorney) lets the men in the house.

This is the part of the movie where people who watch a lot of true crime shows might be yelling at the screen, because not only did these men not even say what their names were, they also didn’t show any identification. What people are supposed to do in this situation is not let any strangers in the house and call the gas company to verify that employees were sent to check on a gas leak. It’s also suspicious that someone from the fire department would be there too when there’s no smoke or fire.

Of course, these two men aren’t who they say they are. When they leave the house, they talk about trying to make it on time for their scheduled car trip to Jacksonville, Florida, to do what they need to do next. As they drive away, the district attorney’s house explodes, killing everyone inside.

Who are these two cold-blooded murderers? Their names are Jack (played Aidan Gillen) and his younger subordinate Patrick (played by Nicholas Hoult), who are hired assassins. Jack is the more calculating and more intelligent person in this deadly duo. And their next mission is to kill someone who’s a key witness in a case being prosecuted by the district attorney who was just murdered.

Their target in Jacksonville is a forensic accountant named Owen (played by Jake Weber), a widower who lives with his inquisitive and bright son Connor (played by Finn Little) in a quiet neighborhood. Owen’s wife/Connor’s mother died of cancer three years prior to this story. Owen and Connor are having breakfast in their kitchen when Owen sees a TV news report about the house explosion that killed the district attorney and his family. Owen looks panic-stricken because he seems to know that he could be the next target.

While driving Connor to school, Owen suddenly decides to speed away because he fears that something could happen to Owen if he leaves him at the school. During this tension-filled escape, Owen quickly tells Connor that they are in danger and it’s because Owen found out something in his job that could get “a lot of people, like governors and congressmen” in trouble. “We can only trust the people we know.” Owen adds.

Connor is shocked, but he has no choice but to go with his father when they go on the run. While they stay at a motel, Owen writes down the secrets that are the reasons why Owen is on a hit list. What Owen writes down takes up two pieces of notepad-sized paper, which he then gives to Connor for safekeeping.

Owen tells Connor not to read what’s on the paper. He also cautions Connor by saying that if Owen is no longer able to take care of Connor, then Connor needs to give these secrets to someone who is completely trustworthy. Owen is contemplating going to the media with his secrets and says that Connor should give the secrets to the media if necessary.

In the meantime, Owen plans to hide out in Montana with Ethan, who happens to be the brother of Owen’s late wife. And so, Owen and Connor go on a road trip to Montana. Hiding out with a relative is one of the most obvious things to do, but there’s no telling how well people can think logically when they’re in panic mode.

Not surprisingly, Jack and Patrick show up at Owen’s house, only to find it completely deserted. Jack is able to hack into Owen’s computer and finds out that Owen has recently withdrawn $10,000 from Owen’s bank accounts, indicating that Owen has taken the cash to go into hiding. Jack and Patrick look around the house for clues and see a photo of Owen, Connor, Ethan and Allison, posed right next to a big sign that reads “Soda Butte Survival School.” Guess who’s going to Montana?

Jack and Patrick go to Montana and manage to find Owen and Connor. Owen ends up dead (how he’s killed won’t be revealed in this review), and Connor escapes into the woods, where he eventually meets Hannah and tells her that he’s hiding from assassins. This plot development isn’t spoiler information, because the majority of the movie is about how Connor and Hannah try to elude these killers in the middle of a forest fire.

Yes, it’s not just a chase movie but it’s also a forest fire movie. How the fire started is also shown in the movie. It’s enough to say that the fire didn’t start from the electrical storm that happens during part of the story. Viewers can easily predict, even before it’s shown, who’s responsible for the forest fire.

At first, Connor is very wary of Hannah. He even punches her when she tries to help him after she first sees Connor running by himself in an open field. But eventually, Connor trusts Hannah and tells her what happened to him and his father. And when Connor gives Hannah the paper with Owen’s secrets, Hannah fully understands why Connor is in grave danger.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a taut thriller that keeps things simple, which is both an asset and liability to the film. On the one hand, the plot is very uncomplicated, and that helps the movie, because there are too many thrillers that try to be too complex for their own good. On the other hand, whatever Owen’s secrets are, a vast conspiracy is involved, so it seems a little far-fetched that only two assassins are in this story.

However, the movie has a brief explanation for having only two killers tasked with killing the witnesses and their family members. Jack even gripes about being “understaffed” in certain scenes in the film. He thinks it would have been better if a second group of assassins had been in Jacksonville to kill Owen around the same time that Jack and Patrick set off the bomb that killed the district attorney in Fort Lauderdale. A drive from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville takes nearly five hours. Jack believes that would be enough time for Owen to hear about the district attorney’s murder and flee. And that’s exactly what happened.

Tyler Perry has a brief scene in the movie as a man named Arthur, who meets with Jack and Patrick after Owen is murdered. Arthur isn’t pleased at all that Connor escaped. And when Jack complains that maybe more people should’ve been hired for this assassin assignment, Arthur scolds Jack and Patrick for being incompetent. The movie never explains who Arthur is, so it’s left up to interpretation if he’s one of the corrupt politicians trying to cover up this big scandal or if he’s someone who was hired as a “fixer” or some type of middle man.

One thing is clear: Whoever hired these assassins thought that keeping the number of people hired to a bare minimum would make things less complicated. Less people would need to be paid, and having more people involved poses a greater risk of someone in the group snitching or being careless. In other words, Jack and Patrick have no cronies to back them up when they try to track down Connor to kill him.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” keeps an adrenaline-like pace throughout the movie. And the movie admirably shows that Hannah isn’t the only hero of the story, because Allison and Ethan have big moments too. However, character development in this movie takes a back seat to the action, since viewers will still know very little about Allison and Ethan by the end of the film.

Where the movie falters most is with the added storyline of the forest fire. There are some scenes where characters are able to outrun avalanche-sized flames or avoid deadly smoke inhalation in very absurd ways. One of the characters also catches on fire but unrealistically is able to walk around just minutes later with no visible bodily injuries except a big facial burn and clothes that look barely singed. In reality, someone who caught on fire that badly wouldn’t be able to move their arms and legs easily because of the severe burns. The person was not wearing a fire-proof outfit either.

The movie’s visual effects are adequate and definitely won’t be nominated for any major awards. What will keep people interested in “Those That Wish Me Dead” are the many suspenseful moments and how the talented cast members are able bring authenticity to characters that aren’t necessarily written to show a lot of depth because they’re fighting for their lives for most of the movie. Jolie and Bernthal have done many other action-oriented films before, so there’s a familiarity to what they do in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” that’s satisfying but not groundbreaking. Sometimes a movie delivers exactly what viewers expect it to deliver—and that’s enough to be entertaining.

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures released “Those Who Wish Me Dead” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on May 14, 2021.

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