Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021)
Nature finds a way.
Considered this generation’s greatest Western storyteller, Taylor Sheridan wholly understands the American West, the wilderness, and what it means to live off the land. He’s the creative force behind the Frontier trilogy, Sicario (2015), Hell or High Water (2016) — which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay — and Wind River (2017), three films that brought the lawless Western trope to the modern age. His latest effort as writer-director, Those Who Wish Me Dead, which is based on a 2014 novel of the same name written by New York Times bestselling author Michael Koryta, sees Sheridan tackle yet another neo-Western story. While all the ingredients for success seem to be firmly in place, Sheridan’s newest thriller is a small step back for the hailed filmmaker as this high-stakes story of survival and redemption is not as provoking as his earlier works. It lacks emotional heft and originality despite showcasing some impressive, edge-of-your-seat set pieces.
The film stars Angelina Jolie, Maleficent (2014), who plays Hannah Faber, an elite smokejumper reeling from the loss of three young lives she failed to save from a devastating blaze about a year earlier. An ex-fire warden and hardened wilderness survival expert, Hannah now takes a sort of comfort in the pain she inflicts on herself. Although putting on a brave face and trying to act cool, she still has nightmares of the fire and suffers from PTSD, feeling wholly responsible for the tragedy. Whether it’s an attention-seeking parachute stunt or the solitude of her watchtower high above the Montana wilderness, where she’s now stationed, Hannah still bears a tremendous amount of guilt and blame — whether warranted or not.
However, when a twelve-year-old boy named Connor Casserly (Finn Little), whose world has been turned upside down, arrives bloodied and shaken in Hannah’s remote region, she agrees to be ‘someone he can trust.’ Connor had just witnessed the assassination of his father (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant gunned down on the road for having information that could incriminate some bureaucratic big-wigs. Connor and his dad had been rushing to Montana by road after Mr. Casserly realizes that his life, and that of his son’s, were in immediate danger to get help from the one lawman they can trust, Sheriff Ethan Sawyer (Jon Bernthal), who is Connor’s uncle.
Hannah’s rescuer instincts kick into gear when she spots the traumatized boy; she tries to call for help from her lookout station. Unfortunately, the radio is fried, given that the tower’s aerial had just been struck by lightning. Thus, Hannah decides to cross miles of thick woodland to get the boy to safety. However, little does she know that Connor is being tracked by two highly effective, well-trained assassins: ruthless killer Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and his heartless brother, Jack Blackwell (Aiden Gillen), the men who are responsible for the murder of the boy’s dad. Making matters worse, an enormous fiery blaze heads towards our heroes, lit by the Blackwells to distract local law enforcement. Trapped between two evils, Hannah must protect Connor from the gunmen hot on his heels and the forest fire threatening to consume them.
Those Who Wish Me Dead starts strong, beginning with a hard-hitting scene that can be likened to the grocery store suicide bombing opener from Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) — though nowhere near as unsparing. Regrettably, the proceedings that follow are less impactful, particularly the death of Mr. Casserly, which lacks the emotional punch needed to hook viewers. I found myself less invested in the stakes due to the minimal characterization of Connor’s father up until his killing. The screenplay, which Sheridan co-wrote with novelist Michael Kortya and Charles Leavitt, Blood Diamond (2006), almost feels overstuffed and lacks precision and focus — we have a wounded boy in need of rescuing, a pregnant woman in peril (Officer Sawyer’s wife, played by Medina Senghore), a raging inferno, a haunted heroine, and so on. And a lot of this stuff has been explored before, in more detail and in superior films. Sheridan’s Sicario 2 focused on a drug lord’s daughter that needed protection from a bunch of hired guns — sound familiar?
The most interesting theme in Those Who Wish Me Dead is probably that of the rule of law vs. the rule of nature — no matter what we believe or excel at, nature will always prevail over man, no matter what. The terrain itself almost feels like a character, so too do the natural elements our heroes are forced to contend with; Hannah and Connor brave fierce lightning strikes before they come face to face with the centerpiece conflagration engulfing the landscape.
It helps that Those Who Wish Me Dead is competently photographed, as Sheridan’s work behind the lens is excellent. He crafts a compelling enough action-thriller through some stunning imagery and tense action/suspense sequences. Shot in New Mexico, production designer Neil Spisak, who collaborated with Sheridan on Wind River, brings scope and grandeur via the setting of Montana, where the story takes place. Taylor knows, respects, and loves the American wilderness, and the gorgeous way that the land has been presented reinforces this affection, despite not shying away from its unforgiving qualities. Moreover, the action is fast-paced and intense. The centerpiece firestorm (a blustery mix of flames, smoke, and ash) is splendidly imagined too. It feels genuine, authentic, and dangerous — however, the fiery final act may be too VFX heavy for some. The fire itself also carries a hint of symbolism, as our damaged heroes must, literally and metaphorically, rise from the ashes around them.
Bringing star power to the project, Angelina Jolie instills a sense of humanity and vulnerability to protagonist Hannah, who, apart from being a kind of adrenaline junkie, has a real nurturing, selfless quality. She is believable in both the action scenes (Jolie performed a heap of her own stunts) and dramatic moments; her quieter scenes with the young Finn Little, Storm Boy (2019), are rather poignant. With that said, Australia’s Finn Little comes off as the most emotionally resonant of the cast, continuing to prove why he’s one of the best child actors working in the business today. Although a challenging role, Little imbues the character of Connor with the right amount of confidence, selling the boy’s fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, but playing well off Jolie’s hardened Hannah — they make a curious ‘action hero’ pair.
While the wildfire is undoubtedly the deadliest of the film’s antagonists, and the biggest threat to Hannah and Connor’s safety, the true villains, hired guns Jack and Patrick Blackwell, are played to perfection by Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones (2011-19), and Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), who’s cast against type. Whilst the Blackwells are given little motivation outside of ‘failure in our line of work is not an option,’ they come off as cold, heartless, efficient, economical, and clean killers — as intended. The dynamic between Gillen and Hoult has a strange off-kilterness, and it’s satisfying watching these proficient hitmen struggle in a foreign environment. The scenes with the Blackwell brothers are probably the film’s strongest. Tyler Perry, Gone Girl (2014), also shows up briefly (and I do mean briefly) as the enigmatic Arthur Phillip, whose lethal direction the Blackwells follow.
Though dubbed the master of the modern Western, Tyler Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead is a mildly satisfying if not slightly underwhelming affair. This is Sheridan’s genre of expertise, so I expected better from the man who ushered in the new American West. The film has first-rate visuals, edgy moments, and decent performances. But for a movie stamped with Sheridan’s fingerprints, Those Who Wish Me Dead should have (at the very least) given us a more powerful, provocative narrative that lingered long after the credits rolled.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)