Note: The writer of this review watched Those Who Wish Me Dead in a sparsely attended press screening with intensive social-distancing precautions. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here is an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Mere weeks after offering the modern equivalent of a Denzel Washington manhunt potboiler, Warner Bros. is back to solidify its reputation as the source for thrills so out-of-vogue they’re practically anachronistic. The studio’s latest, Those Who Wish Me Dead, is the kind of slim, mid-budget, action-crime boilerplate that Hollywood churned out on the regular in the ’90s. Back then, it might have starred Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood or—if the budget dipped low enough—Howie Long. Today, it features Angelina Jolie, shedding any sultry glamour to play a firefighter thrust into a different kind of deadly inferno. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose body of work behind and in front of the camera has trafficked heavily in the time-honored collision of forces on opposing sides of the law, this is a movie that feels contemporary only in release strategy: Thanks to a simultaneous theatrical and streaming debut, it can immediately fulfill its destiny to become an HBO staple, watched once in full and then in bits and pieces on random Saturdays thereafter.
Jolie’s character, Hannah Faber, is a smokejumper—a particularly hazardous field of firefighting that entails parachuting directly into burning foliage. A figurative blaze consumes her: Relegated to a lookout tower in the aftermath of a containment operation gone wrong, Hannah surveys the Montana landscape with simmering guilt, unable to get over three kids she couldn’t rescue from the flames. There’s smoke of a new sort on the horizon. A forensic accountant, Owen (Jake Weber, in the role that might have gone to Liam Neeson were it a little bigger and a little more dashing), has uncovered a damning government cover-up. (The movie, in a characteristic elision of exposition, figures we don’t really need the details. It’s right.) With his young son, Connor (Finn Little), in tow, Owen flees for Hannah’s literal neck of the woods, seeking protection from the local sheriff (Jon Bernthal) our heroine used to date.
Will Hannah get a shot at redemption, to this time save the child pursued by indifferent destruction? That’s as inevitable as the intersection of the film’s two plotlines, which Sheridan pulls together less gradually then he did the parallel threads of his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Hell Or High Water. Those Who Wish Me Dead isn’t half as elegiacally poetic or rich in flavorful dialogue as that grand neo-Western. Nor does it possess the subversive realpolitik cynicism of his script for Sicario or even the jurisdictional fascinations of his last directorial effort, Wind River. This is a more meat-and-potatoes mode for the filmmaker, whose obsession with relentless pursuit and confrontation (with cops and criminals, with chaos and order) in America’s backcountry can be traced to his time on the cast list of Sons Of Anarchy. Punching up a script by Charles Leavitt and Michael Koryta (the latter wrote the source material, a 2014 novel), Sheridan shaves the plot to its skeletal essence—a zero sum game of offense and defense—even as he revels a little in hard-boiled banter, the good-old-boy shit talk of roughneck firefighters. Unlike his past projects, this one could never be confused for a Cormac McCarthy yarn.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is mostly lean and mean, and that’s the best thing about it. The film’s mercenary professionalism extends to its clean but unremarkable staging, and it mirrors that of the villains, a pair of merciless hit men played by Nicholas Hoult and the reliably slimy Aidan Gillen. Sheridan spends considerable stretches of the slender runtime in their cold-blooded company, trailing the two as they race after their quarry, methodically discuss plans of attack, and menace the supporting cast, including the lawman (Bernthal, who had a memorable cameo in Wind River, gets one great scene here, laughing off the lie that he might live if he cooperates) and his steely, pregnant wife (Medina Senghore). Were this the Elmore Leonard adaptation it vaguely suggests, the bad guys would have a touch more offbeat personality. Sheridan instead treats them like organic instruments of death, or maybe as the human equivalent of the roaring force of nature cutting a path of scorching annihilation through the trees during the film’s fiery back half.
Agreeably straightforward, Those Who Wish Me Dead is also thin as kindling: It threatens to disperse into embers as you watch it. And there are limits to its ruthless economy. For as unsentimental as Sheridan’s approach looks from a distance, everything with Jolie’s anguished Hannah feels hoary and even a touch maudlin, especially once the movie pairs her off with an adolescent charge, the two trading commiserative stories and a few stray one-liners. As always when it comes to Hollywood tropes, absence makes the heart grow fonder; that this no-frills bit of throwback shoot-and-evade scarcely resembles anything that the studios are bankrolling these days lends its modest pleasures some novelty, if not the leniency of nostalgia. But some trends never go entirely out of fashion, and pairing a haunted, no-nonsense daredevil with a cute kid is the kind that really should. Count us among those who wish it dead.