A B-movie disguised as something more grandiose, Those Who Wish Me Dead is a work with great dramatic potential but far too many instances of false emotions and the wrong characters stepping to the forefront. Directed by Wind River helmer Taylor Sheridan (who also wrote or co-wrote such films as Hell or High Water, Sicario, and the recent Without Remorse), the work is actually two stories, destined to collide spectacularly in the Montana wilderness amid a great deal of very destructive fire. Returning to her action roots, Angelina Jolie stars as Hannah Faber, one of the only female smokejumpers (a firefighter specially trained for wild fires) in Montana, who misjudged the wind a year earlier during a particularly bad fire, resulting in a group of kids dying in front of her eyes. She plays the hard-drinking, tough boss lady, but she was severely damaged by the event.
The other storyline begins in Florida, where a pair of men posing as gas company workers go into the home of a district attorney, leave several minutes later, and shortly thereafter the entire house explodes in what is made to look like a gas leak. Across town, forensic accountant Owen (Jake Weber) sees news of the explosion, grabs his son Connor (Finn Little), and the two head to Montana to visit Owen’s former brother-in-law Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal), who just happens to be the only person in law enforcement whom they know, lives in the same Montana community as Hannah, and used to date Hannah years earlier. To set the tragic stage with a little more focus, Ethan is now married to Allison (Medina Senghore), who is about seven months pregnant. The two used to run a wilderness survival school, not that that’s going to come in handy at any point in this movie.
The two killers (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) are about as cold-blooded as they come and also exceedingly resourceful, hired by a criminal of some pull, played by Tyler Perry. They eventually track down Owen, whose accounting makes him a key witness in an upcoming trial (the details of which we’re never really clued into, not that it matters), and kill him as he nears his destination in Montana, leaving poor Connor alone in the woods, where he is eventually discovered by Hannah—thus, the two worlds meet. After setting fire to the forest to keep law enforcement distracted, the killers set their sites on Connor for no other reason than he saw their faces. The chase is on, the fire is raging, the sheriff is on everyone’s trail, and Hannah is determined not to let another child die on her watch.
The biggest issue I have with Those Who Wish Me Dead (aside from its truly clunky title) is that I never really bought Jolie in this role; she’s playing tough without actually conveying a great deal of toughness. The far more interesting characters here are Sheriff Ethan and wife Allison, who seem more aware of what’s going on around them and how to approach dangers in a way that seems smart and effective. They feel like they live in a modern Western and something about their confidence and even body language make them seem like people who grew up in this environment; Jolie is more of a capable tourist, which is strange considering how great I think she has been in the past in action-oriented roles. But a result of her less than engaging performance is that she practically vanishes amid far more interesting work being done around her by everyone from young Finn Little to Hoult and Gillen playing killers so mission-focused that in lesser hands, the roles might have been silly or stiff; instead, their professionalism makes them far scarier in this context.
Co-written by Sheridan, Michael Korytaand, and Charles Leavitt, Those Who Wish Me Dead’s screenplay has a great ear for how people in the region and in these jobs sound. The salty language flows quite liberally, and that adds to the authenticity of the camaraderie of the smoke jumpers and the relationship they have with those from the region. Coming in at a lean 100 minutes (including credits), the film is tightly constructed, never wears out its welcome, and does due justice to the work being done under the worst conditions imaginable. The movie is often thrilling, sometimes scary, and never afraid to let its characters show their vulnerability. There are worse films you could check out this weekend, but there are also much better (though nothing with this much fire chasing you).
The film opens theatrically Friday and on HBO Max.
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