Those Who Wish Me Dead
reviewed by Ken Jones
Those Who Wish Me Dead
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Premiere Date (Theaters): May 14, 2021
Taylor Sheridan is an actor turned writer/director whose films have really captured my attention. He burst onto the scene with the script for Sicario and followed it up with Hell or High Water and Wind River, the latter of which he also served as director. Those Who Wish Me Dead is his latest directorial effort, an adaptation of a novel by Michael Koryta. It is also notable as it is a lead performance from Angelina Jolie, who has been a bit removed the last few years from the acting scene.
The film starts off with two separate narratives. In the woods of Montana, Angelina Jolie’s Hannah Faber is a grounded smokejumper, stationed in a fire watch tower. She is haunted and traumatized and guilt-stricken by seeing three kids perish in a wildfire; unable to completely move past it, she embraces the isolation of the tower. Across the country in Florida, a teenage boy named Conner (Finn Little) has his life turned upside down when his dad (Jake Weber) discovers something that sets two hitmen brothers, Patrick and Jack Blackwell (Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen), after them. Having a thread of a family connection in Montana in the form of local Sheriff’s Deputy Ethan Sawyer (Jon Berthnal), Conner finds himself on the run in the Montana forest, crossing paths with Hannah, with the killers on his trail. All of this with the backdrop of a forest fire set loose.
There are a lot of solid elements to this film that make it feel like a throwback to some classic action thrillers of the 80s or 90s. Jolie’s Hannah, haunted by her past experience, is a broken character and helping Conner in his situation is a path forward for her; in classic storytelling terms, it is a chance to make right when she perceives she fell short before. Redemption in the face of adversity. And, refreshingly, she is the lead of an action film who does not have superpowers (aside from maybe the power to survive multiple lightning strikes), she only has her resources and wits at her disposal when it comes to combating assassins with guns. Conner’s story is one of survival, evading people intent on killing him, and being in desperate need of being able to trust someone amidst all the sudden uncertainty thrust into his life. Fire is a big part of the movie, and these two characters are challenged by literal and figurative fire.
On top the cast members already mentioned, Medina Senghore is a standout as the pregnant wife of Berthnal’s Deputy Sheriff who runs a survivalist camp. Tyler Perry pops up in a cameo about halfway through in a crucial but small role; so small that I expected him to resurface again at the end of the film. Berthnal fits perfectly into Sheridan’s modern American Western. Hoult and Gillen are nearly pitch perfect as the no nonsense assassins who are after Conner. They are intriguing characters that fit the mold of classic assassins in movies. They are professional and adaptable, but they are also not afraid to vocalize that if they had their druthers, this would be more than a two-man operation. Nevertheless, they accept the circumstances and are willing to do what they are told, regardless of how messy things become and regardless of what the collateral is. And there certainly is collateral to their violence.
Forest fires are the backdrop for the film, and it is almost as though Sheridan makes a concerted effort to have fire be its own character; particularly in the climax of the film, where it almost becomes a sentient, malevolent entity pursuing Hannah and Conner. There are also some absolutely beautiful visuals as the fire rages at night, a surreal orange glow lighting up the darkness with embers swirling everywhere as characters make their way through the woods, pursued and pursuing alike.
And yet, there is something lacking in the elements of Those Who Wish Me Dead. The brokenness of Hannah and the peril that Conner finds himself in do not resonate in the way as the moral compromise that Kate goes through in Sicario, or the two-sides of the law dichotomy of Hell or High Water, or the grief and empathy of Wind River. There is a lot less moral ambiguity here, a lot more black and white than shades of gray, which is another throwback element of the movie. It is perfectly middle of the road genre fare, something that you can easily enjoy for 100 minutes and then just as easily forget about the next day, which is a shame, because there are still scenes and moments from Sheridan’s previous works that pop into my mind from time to time.
Those Who Wish Me Dead comes with a lot of promise, from the cast to the director to the premise, but it does not entirely deliver on that promise. Despite that, it is still a movie that can be enjoyed for what it is, as a solid action thriller. It is the kind of movie that does not get made that much anymore. In a world where action is dominated by superheroes, it is nice to know that there might still be a place for a movie like this.
Ken Jones is the Chief Film Critic for OnScreen Blog.