Taylor Sheridan writes (and sometimes directs) movies that pair genre thrills with a purposeful commentary. Sicario (2015) explores America’s messy and ineffective war on drugs, Hell or High Water (2016) highlights the cost of predatory lending and profiteering on family farms, and Wind River (2017) touches on the woefully inadequate response towards missing/abused Indigenous women in this country. His latest effort, though, is uh, strongly entrenched against the killing of pregnant women by assassins? Still, while Those Who Wish Me Dead has nothing on its mind aside from delivering suspense and thrills it manages that goal more often than not, and that’s no small thing.
Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a smoke jumper used to dropping into danger to protect both forests and people, but a recent incident has left her floating in place without the benefit of a parachute. A bad call involving wind and fire movement resulted in the death of three teenagers, and her reckless behavior since has left her relegated to manning a watchtower deep in the woods. Her instinct to protect is kicked back into gear, though, when a blood-splashed boy crosses her path. Connor (Finn Little) and his father (Jake Weber) were on the run from a pair of assassins (Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult), and with his dad dead the boy has nowhere to turn but Hannah. The heavily armed killers are in pursuit, and one of them has the bright idea to start a fire…
Those Who Wish Me Dead (co-written by Sheridan, Charles Leavitt, and Michael Koryta, and based on Koryta’s novel) is a bit denser in the plot department than my summation above, but the motivation as to why the assassins are on the hunt is never as interesting as what’s happening at the moment. Its details involving forensic accounting and corrupt politicians are instantly forgettable, and instead it’s the action, suspense, and supporting characters that make the film compelling.
Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson capture the New Mexico landscape with an eye for majestic beauty while still delivering the feeling that nature is every bit as unruly and dangerous as the men who walk through it. Fire swirls in wind gusts, devouring everything in its path, and lightning strikes as if it has a personal vendetta against humankind (and against Hannah in particular). The fire sequences in particular, both in flashback and in the increasingly intense third-act, succeed in invoking terror through a combination of editing, visual effects, and stunt work.
The film’s other action comes courtesy of its two assassins, and while neither character is given anything resembling a backstory — the script is light in general regarding characters beyond Hannah — both Gillen and Hoult make for convincingly cold and determined antagonists. They’re efficient and vicious, and that combination ratchets up the tension when they pay a visit to a pregnant woman named Allison (Medina Senghore). She’s the sheriff’s (Jon Bernthal) wife, and when they come looking for him they find her instead leading to an extended sequence that’s both nerve-shredding and thrilling. Allison is warm, capable, and arguably the most engaging character in Those Who Wish Me Dead to the point that it’s her fate viewers will be most invested in — leaving Hannah and young Connor tied for third place. (You know you’re already concerned for Bernthal.)
That’s not to say Jolie does lesser work here, but her considerable star power does feel a bit neutered. It’s terrific seeing her in a genre role again, and if nothing else her presence here serves as a reminder that Salt (2010) should have kicked off an action franchise for her. That said, Jolie’s alternately intense and pouty expressions retain their power, and the emotion from her desire for redemption is palpable. Hannah’s self-destructive streak is forced into a halt as her caregiver genes are turned back on, and there’s a fragility that comes with Jolie’s performance in relation to the scared and broken boy. Her movements, though, feel sluggish and near somnambulistic at times that should feel energetic and alive. Happily for action fans, Senghore, Bernthal, Gillen, and Hoult keep the adrenaline flowing — and the flames tearing through the trees helps too.
Those Who Wish Me Dead won’t surprise viewers with its central narrative as you know where things will go there, but it does manage some small beats that feel inspired. Sure, they’re almost all related to Senghore’s Allison and might just leave you wondering what the film would have looked like had she been the lead, that just means you should watch the film for two women instead of just the one on the poster.