Taylor Sheridan makes movies I enjoy and it piques my interest whenever his name is attached to a project. Since first stepping behind the camera in 2011, Sheridan has been involved in several features that have been right up my alley. He penned both of the “Sicario” movies. He wrote and received an Oscar nomination for 2016’s “Hell or High Water”. He wrote and directed 2017’s underseen “Wind River”. And it’s worth mentioning that he was co-creator of Paramount’s hit show “Yellowstone”.
His latest film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features many of Sheridan’s trademarks: the neo-western vibe, a distinct regional (often rural) flavor, and a crime element that plays a critical part in the story. Here he co-writes and directs a loose adaptation of a Michael Koryta novel of the same name (Koryta and Charles Leavitt also worked on the screenplay). Angelina Jolie provides the star power playing a tortured forest service firefighter who finds her shot at personal redemption when she crosses paths with a young boy being chased by two assassins.
Jolie plays Hannah, a veteran smokejumper who’s still haunted by a terrible incident one year earlier. While fighting a raging forest fire, Hannah misread the wind leading to the deaths of three young boys. Now her PTSD combined with overwhelming guilt has driven her to leave her hotshots team and spend the summer alone manning an isolated 20×20 fire tower deep in the Montana forest. A ruggedly charming Jon Bernthal plays Ethan, a sheriff’s deputy and Hannah’s ex-boyfriend who’s worried about her self-destructive mindset. Both he and his pregnant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) see through her vain attempts at hiding her despair.
And that’s one leg of the story. The other involves Ethan’s brother Owen (Jake Weber), a forensic accountant living in Florida who stumbled upon some damning information that has some really powerful people wanting him dead. After hearing that the district attorney he was working with had been killed, Owen takes his 12-year-old son Connor (a very good Finn Little) and heads cross-country seeking the help of his brother. Little does he know, two efficient hired killers (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) are already on his trail and with limitless resources at their disposal.
These combustible elements inevitably collide deep in the mountain wilds of Montana. A brutal ambush leaves Owen dead and young Connor scampering through the woods where he eventually runs into Hannah. As she tries to earn the frightened boy’s trust, the two killers are hot on his trail determined to tie up their final loose end. And if that wasn’t enough, Sheridan ratchets the tension even tighter by throwing in a furious forest fire that’s bearing down on Hannah and Connor, cutting them off from the nearest help.
Jolie is no stranger to playing broken characters so it’s no surprise that she’s a nice fit here. Once she gets past the hammy overly macho early scenes, she gives us a good taste of why she was cast. The problem is with so many moving parts and story angles to cover, the movie doesn’t give her the time needed to dig into Hannah’s emotional turmoil. It’s a key part of her character that’s ends up alluded to more that explored. Still, Jolie does what she can, showing stoicism, physicality, and a mother bear ferocity later on. The sturdy Bernthal is as reliable as ever and Senghore has some great moments. But it’s Gillen and Hoult who intrigued me most – cold, calculated and businesslike, with the same destructive savagery as the fire burning through the Montana forest.
“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is an imperfect yet entertaining crime thriller that settles for a straightforward throwback vibe rather than the deeper character focus it could have had. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As you would expect from a Sheridan movie, it invests a lot into its location with DP Ben Richardson shooting the natural setting with both awe and reverence. And with an alluring cast and a surprising amount of grit, there’s enough here to keep you immersed and engaged. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is now showing in theaters and on HBO Max.