Those Who Wish Me Dead is a testament to the superstar that is Angelina Jolie. Director/co-writer Taylor Sheridan’s latest woodsy western thriller pits Jolie deep in the Montana woods as a forest fire rages and two incredibly dangerous hitmen chase her and a boy who has secrets about their boss. It’s a simple premise reminiscent of the mid-budget thriller of the 90’s, but it’s a tense, wild ride and Jolie is front and center.
Hannah (Jolie) is part of a smoke jumping team in Montana. After leading a mission that went terribly wrong, she is stuck with the guilt and trauma of her experience and the lives that were lost on her watch and now works at an outpost overlooking the vast forest. While on duty, she finds a young boy named Connor (Finn Little), who is on the run from two hitmen (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) after he witnesses them murder his father because of information he had about their boss. That information is now in that hands of Connor and he must get it to someone he trusts immediately. Hannah must protect Connor and keep him safe from the hitmen, along with trying to avoid a lightning storm and a raging fire that has taken over the forest.
Those Who Wish Me Dead keeps with Sheridan’s style and focus of his previous films. The Oscar-nominated writer of Sicario, Hell or High Water, and Wind River (which he also directed) has made a name for himself in the western thriller genre, making intensely violent films set in landscapes like the mountains of Wyoming or a small town in West Texas and featuring characters who take the law into their own hands. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, it’s Hannah who is taking the law into her own hands in the dense Montana woods, as she chooses to help save and defend Connor rather than reach out to the local authorities or anyone else. The violence in the film is bloody, brutal, and frequent, and there are scenes of relentless tension, like the scene where the two hitmen are interrogating a pregnant woman about the whereabouts of Connor.
This is Sheridan’s sixth screenplay and second film as a director and it is one of lesser screenplays yet the better of his two directorial efforts. Sheridan’s best screenplays, Sicario and Hell or High Water, are tightly scripted character pieces layered within high intensity action westerns. The scripts feature great, effortless dialog and contain a tight story. Those Who Wish Me Dead, which Sheridan co-wrote with Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt based on a book of the same name by Koryta, felt very flat in its story, shallow in most of its characters, and featured some glaring plot holes that really hurt the end of the film (what happened to the paper that Connor was holding on to that had all information on it?! Did I miss something?! There was no way that paper could have survived all the things they went through). Though reminiscent of a simple, throwback 90’s film, I’ve come to expect more from Sheridan as a writer. His characters are usually rich and interesting and stories are simple, yet complex with multiple layers. Not here, though. The only character who seemed to matter was Hannah and everything just seemed straight forward and forgettable.
As a director, however, Sheridan has really grown since Wind River. The tone of the film is more consistent, the action sequences are more intense and crafted better, and the film looks great, particularly towards the end of the film when the fire is more prominent and adds a yellow-orange-bloody sheen over the screen as the violence ramps up. It will be interesting to see where Sheridan goes from here as a writer and as a director.
But much like Connor in the movie, what keeps Those Who Wish Me Dead alive is the performance by Angelina Jolie. Jolie is a superstar we take for granted. An actress who has shown that you can put her in any genre, and she will always deliver something great. We sometimes forget that Jolie was one of our great action stars of the 2000’s, having starred in Gone in 60 Seconds, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. But 2010’s Salt was the last time Jolie starred in an action film and even with a ten-plus year break from the genre, she doesn’t miss a beat. Jolie’s performance is one of her best in years. A layered, emotional performance about a haunted woman who finds a chance to redeem herself and her soul by helping and saving this child. Hannah is somebody Connor must trust immediately, and you believe Jolie as that person. Her charisma, presence, and maternal instinct are what bring Connor to trust Hannah and it’s Hannah’s physicality, knowledge of her surroundings, grit, and determination that keep him alive. Jolie also masterfully portrays Hannah as a woman with a tough exterior whose guilt is crippling her on the inside. This is a great performance by Jolie and one of the best of 2021.
Though a let down for Taylor Sheridan as a writer, Those Who Wish Me Dead shows Sheridan is the real deal behind the camera, making a tense, thrilling, yet relatively generic thriller led by an outstanding performance by Angelina Jolie.