Based on a novel by Michael Koryta, Those Who Wish Me Dead is the second feature film directed by Taylor Sheridan, the writer and actor whose previous writing and directorial effort was Wind River with Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. Sheridan has also penned acclaimed screenplays for both Sicario films and Hell or High Water, in addition to co-creating and writing the TV series Yellowstone.
Those Who Wish Me Dead shares several common elements with all of these works, in that it is largely set in a vast rural area of the United States–in this case Montana–and it loosely follows the structure of a classic Western updated for the modern era. But while Sheridan tries to capture a sense of foreboding and danger from the start, and stacks the story with a formidable list of actors, the film never quite attains the urgency or connection with its characters that it needs to make an impact.
The first problem with the film is that its 100-minute running time feels skimpy for a thriller that weaves together so many characters, leaving out a lot of information and character development. Angelina Jolie (Eternals) is ostensibly playing the main character, a smokejumper named Hannah who is traumatized by the memory of a recent forest fire in which she could not save three children. That’s literally all we know about the character–that and this incident has pushed her to the brink of contemplating suicide.
But redemption comes in the form of Connor (Finn Little), a young boy who goes on the run with his father Owen (Jake Weber) at the film’s outset. Owen is a forensic accountant who has discovered some things that are very wrong–although we never know exactly what those things are, except that they have led to the assassination of a district attorney by two cold-blooded killers (Aiden Gillen from Game of Thrones and Nicholas Hoult from the recent X-Men movies), who are now in pursuit of Owen.
Owen and Connor head to Montana, where his brother-in-law Ethan (Jon Bernthal) is the local deputy sheriff and runs a wilderness survival camp with his six months pregnant wife, Allison (Medina Senghore). But when the killers catch up to the father and son, and Connor is forced to escape into the woods alone, running into Jolie’s Hannah, who’s stationed in a forest lookout tower. When the killers deliberately set a fire to flush Connor out, he and Hannah must make a desperate attempt to get through the forest with the raging flames on one side and the murderers on the other.
There is a lot to recommend in Those Who Wish Me Dead, including much of the cast, the always compelling landscapes (with New Mexico standing in for Montana), and several pulse-pounding moments scattered throughout the narrative. But when your most interesting characters–Gillen’s Jack and Hoult’s against-type Patrick, who exude a professional malevolence and malignant buddy chemistry–are the villains of the piece, something is out of balance.
It’s not just Angelina either who doesn’t have much to work with–although her performance kind of meanders around without ever settling into a groove. Bernthal and Senghore are both very good, but they’re also reduced to single-attribute characters: he’s the competent, fearless lawman and she’s the even more competent partner and survivalist who not only handles herself in close quarters, but also goes riding on horseback and climbing while six months pregnant!
In addition to the fire and the killers, there’s also a lightning storm to contend with at one point while all our main characters take quite a beating but manage to keep themselves going. The implausibilities begin to pile up even as some of the plot strands remain undeveloped. Just what did Owen discover and who was he working for? Who is the mysterious kingpin (played by Tyler Perry), introduced in one scene and never spied again, who orders his death? And just how does one of the ruthlessly efficient killers allow someone to get the upper hand on him at a pivotal moment?
At his best Sheridan writes elegant scripts that combine the crime, Western, and noir genres in contemporary settings with a subtle social relevance to them. See Hell or High Water or Wind River as prime examples of that. Even though the latter has its flaws on a narrative level, the urgency of its themes is apparent (Hell, on the other hand, is a flat-out masterpiece).
It’s not clear what the deeper meaning of Those Who Wish Me Dead is, and with neither that nor any more complex character insight, the film comes across as a barebones thriller that’s moderately entertaining and eminently forgettable (kind of like a Netflix movie of the week). We don’t wish the film ill; we just wish it was better.
Those Who Wish Me Dead opens in theaters and begins streaming on HBO Max this Friday, May 14.