Movie Review: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead’ Delivers Blockbuster Fun, Despite Thinly Drawn Characters
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Writers: Michael Koryta, Charles Leavitt, Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Jon Bernthal
Synopsis: A teenage murder witness finds himself pursued by twin assassins in the Montana wilderness with a survival expert tasked with protecting him — and a forest fire threatening to consume them all.
Few writers or directors have more power in Hollywood than Taylor Sheridan. The writer-turned-director continues to draw an audience for his traditional, if not throwback, style of storytelling. Dressing up modern-day stories in Western tropes, his projects rarely flop with audiences. The track record of Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River, and Yellowstone is rather unassailable. Penning Oscar-winning films, draw massive numbers on television, and seemingly keeping a genre alive single-handedly fits the Sheridan persona. His latest feature, Those Who Wish Me Dead, unites a surprisingly stellar cast for a fairly straightforward crime thriller. With Angelina Jolie taking on her first non-Disney starring role since 2015, Those Who Wish Me Dead continues Sheridan’s hot streak.
After jumping out of an airplane to instant adrenaline, Those Who Wish Me Dead follows two converging stories. Hannah Farber (Jolie), a firefighter and smokejumper, has severe PTSD after a deadly incident on the job. Meanwhile, in Florida, an accountant Owen (Jake Webber), and his son Connor (Finn Little), find themselves running for their lives. When two assassins (Nicholas Hoult & Aiden Gillen) catch up with Owen, they kill him before reaching his brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal). Connor escapes into the woods and finds his way to Hannah. As the two of them bond, the assassins begin a fire to shroud their attempts to find and kill Connor.
In the 1990s, Those Who Wish Me Dead would fit the disaster film template like a glove. Unlike fellow disaster film Twister, Those Who Wish Me Dead takes its plot very seriously. This can be a bit off-putting at times, but it also differentiates from the winking, self-referential films that litter the genre’s landscape today. The stakes are obvious, with death on the line at every turn. While the McGuffin-serving information is left unspoken, and frankly, the specifics don’t matter. Instead, Sheridan lets relationships blossom in the tension-driven narrative of his film.
Jolie takes the superstar role and delivers a performance that balances the film around her. She is at once a badass, an emotional wreck, and a person struggling to find their worth. Her character is shallow in each aspect, but Jolie’s versatility provides an appearance of depth. This allows Jolie to spotlight Farber’s vulnerable mental health yet turn into a hatchet-wielding badass at the word go. She fits the white hat silhouettes of Rooster Cogburn and Will Kane. For Sheridan, the cosplay of the famous gunslingers is essential, even as Jolie crafts a role unique to the Neo-Western.
Yet, the real stars of the films are the unknowns. Little’s emotional turn opens the door for Jolie’s reflective and empathetic turn. His genuine fear at the sight of Gillen and Hoult provides a backbone for the tension Sheridan wishes to build. Little’s dual roles as an outsider and innocent create the audience surrogate we want to survive. Simultaneously, Medina Senghore steals nearly every scene. As Ethan’s pregnant wife, she could easily have been sidelined throughout the film. Instead, she’s an active participant. Her heroism and survivalist instincts are always in tune with the vibes of the film. She’s impossible to root against, and the sense that you’re discovering a star makes her an even more alluring screen presence.
The villainous crew is more of a mixed bag. Gillen tears into the script, bellowing his commands and anger in every direction. He turns up the temperature on the Littlefinger persona that made him famous. At times, he’s clearly going way over the line and is comical instead of threatening. While he oscillates between extremes, Hoult plays one of the most subdued hitmen you’ve ever seen. From the word go, Hoult feels wildly out of place in the film, which never utilizes his charm or ability to create menace. Instead, he’s simply boring in a role that could have gone to literally thousands of actors. The moment of clarity that explains Hoult’s involvement in the film never comes, and Sheridan’s screenplay and camera waste the extremely talented actor.
Sheridan often finds nuance in the stories he tells, even if the nuance reveals dark truths about how America treats its people. Unfortunately, Those Who Wish Me Dead never rises above the surface-level inspections on PTSD or the protection of whistleblowers. For much of the film, you know exactly where the story is going in how it will work itself out. Characters drop one-liners, and they explain what is literally happening on-screen.
While the screenplay traffics in cliches, but Sheridan’s direction adds more life to the story. At several points in the film, you can see the visuals that must have been swirling in Sheridan’s mind as he prepped the film. The image of ash falling around characters like snow sends chills down your spine. The raging fires frighten, fulfilling imagery one most often associates with demons as they nip our heroes’ heels. Throughout the film, Sheridan creates evocative imagery and proves his growth as an artist. If he can marry the visuals with his stronger screenplays, Sheridan could grab even more power in the industry.
For Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead delivers another exciting hit. The tension and action set pieces provide plenty of excitement, and the writer-director improves his skills behind the camera. Jolie continues to add to her impressive filmography as a star, this time venturing outside the big-budget IP system to do so. With a combination of well-known actors and impressive newcomers, Those Who Wish Me Dead fills the mid-budget hole that many of us yearn for.