There’s a pretty great little thriller in Those Who Wish Me Dead, the new feature from writer-director Taylor Sheridan, who created the TV series Yellowstone, directed the excellent Wind River, wrote Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Tom Clancy’s Last Remorse, and otherwise conveys the kind of rugged American survivalist mentality last seen in Hollywood blockbusters from John Milius.
The nifty thriller at the heart of Those Who Wish Me Dead involves a pair of big city mob hitmen (X-Men’s Nicholas Hoult and Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen) out to kill a district attorney and his assistant Owen (Jake Weber). The D.A.’s office has uncovered classified mafia information, and for reasons of plot convenience, keep it to themselves until they can be disposed of.
But Owen has also given his son Connor (Finn Little) the mafia intel in the form of a scribbled note, and tasks him with running through the dry forests of Montana after he bites it to deliver the info to the media. And as the hitmen track the young boy through the wilderness, they run afoul of his uncle Ethan (Jon Bernthal) and aunt Allison (Medina Senghore), who just happen to run an wilderness survival school.
Half of Those Who Wish Me Dead is a kind of reverse Deliverance, where the bad guys are ruthless big city killers, and we root for the rugged mountain survivalists to take them down. And the scenes between Gillen and Hoult and Bernthal and (particularly) Senghore really pay off nicely.
But that’s only half of Those Who Wish Me Dead. The other half involves Hannah, a Montana forest firefighter played by Angelina Jolie, who struggles to overcome memories of watching a family burn while she tracks potential fires from an isolated watchtower.
Hannah has no connection to the thriller narrative here, but she comes across the young boy in the woods and offers him some assistance. The pair walk up to a forest fire started by the hitmen as a distraction, walk away from it, and then run from the bad guys back into the fire as Hannah confronts her fears. Bravo.
Many have criticized the mere appearance of Jolie here, who looks like she could have walked off the runway and into the forest fire. But Jolie is excellent, and despite a pair of scenes of superhuman resilience, she really sells the characterization. The real problem is that this lead character has little to do with the story in Those Who Wish Me Dead, and seems tacked on as an afterthought.
Unlike something along the lines of Cliffhanger, where the action hero takes on the bad guys and makes it personal, Jolie’s character is just an innocent bystander trying to survive, barely registering on the bad guys’ radar.
The crazy thing is Those Who Wish Me Dead already has the tough-as-nails heroine who fits into the story in the form of Senghore’s pregnant Allison. She’s the one who takes it to the bad guys and makes it gruesomely personal, and the scenes between Senghore and Gillen are easily the best in the film.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is not the intense forest fire movie being sold by promotional material – see the underrated Only the Brave for that movie – and it often feels at odds with itself under two converging narratives. But it is an undeniably well-crafted little thriller writ large by writer-director Sheridan, taut and exciting with first-rate performances, and good-enough slice of survivalist cinema to satisfy a light craving.