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Taylor Sheridan’s latest feature, Those Who Wish Me Dead, based on the novel of the same name by co-screenwriter Michael Koryta, follows Conor (Finn Little) who goes on the run after witnessing the murder of his father at the hands of two assassins (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult). With the help of hardened but haunted smokejumper, Hannah (Angelina Jolie), Conor must evade the two killers as well as a vicious forest fire blazing towards them.
This type of film is rare to see in 2021, especially playing in mainstream cinemas, and wouldn’t be inaccurately described as a 90s throwback. A lean, 100 minute, mid-budget action-thriller featuring an ensemble cast of character actors led by a bonafide movie star and with a natural disaster in the mix to boot. Even more surprising than the existence of Those Who Wish Me Dead is that it’s far better than it sounds on paper. It wastes no time dropping us straight into the action and maintains a blistering pace right to its final moments. The action scenes are fast-paced and pull no punches, yet this constant intensity doesn’t get in the way of the building of tension and suspense, grounding what could have been over-the-top set pieces, making them believable and – more importantly – raising some genuine stakes.
Unsurprisingly, Sheridan’s direction elevates the film as a whole. But most importantly, it elevates the action set pieces, throwing the audience right into the middle of the blaze, fight, or whatever else may be onscreen. Although Those Who Wish Me Dead doesn’t quite stand shoulder to shoulder with his excellent work on Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, his stamp is most certainly there. It’s clearly seen in the moments of edge-of-your-seat suspense, neo-western style and its beautiful cinematography, using the gorgeous landscapes of the Montana Wilderness to its full advantage. The frantic, kinetic direction and shooting of the forest fire scenes will leave you in awe.
The screenplay here is the film’s weakest link, although doesn’t hold it back too significantly. It is bare-bones in some ways, the direction managing to mask these issues, if not rendering them irrelevant. It can be overly sentimental at times, mainly when focusing on the relationship between Hannah and Conor. They bond over shared tragedies in their lives and Hannah’s incentive to save Conor is given an added heft through a formulaic backstory in which she failed to rescue three children from a wildfire. This is just one of the more prominent examples of the story falling victim to well-established formula and cliché.
Overall, however the neo-western manages to not become bogged down by its sentimentality. These moments appear in very brief interludes in the action and its formulaic aspects are masked by direction, pacing and performances which ground it and throw the audience right into its set pieces. Those Who Wish Me Dead also avoids indulging in much context or characterisation, and in this works in the film’s favour: context isn’t necessary to grasp any of the story, stakes or motivation.
All of this aids the film in staying lean and tightly paced. A couple of further, albeit minor quibbles rear their heads in the final act of the film. After the brief, teasing glimpses given to us in the first act, one wouldn’t be blamed for believing (and expecting that) it’s a matter of Chekhov’s Smokejumping, but this isn’t the case, and the film does feel slightly lesser for its lack. The final minutes of the film are also a whimper, with a shallow, half-emotional payoff. This is the only point where Those Who Wish Me Dead would absolutely have benefitted from some added depth to the writing.
The real guts of this film is its loaded cast. Jolie initially starts off feeling broad and bordering on caricature. Initially a badass, reckless wildcard from the ‘Tom Cruise in Top Gun school of renegades’ she quickly falls right into her role when the main plot kicks off. It’s a welcome return to her fearless action heroine roles, and one of the best she’s given us. Finn Little as Conor also marks himself as one to keep an eye on in future, selling his character in a way that’s exceptionally rare for child/early teen actors.
Some of the cast are less standout, however. Jon Bernthal as Conor’s uncle, Deputy Sheriff Ethan, is given a welcome increase in his typical feature film screen time and does the best with what he’s given, but that isn’t much. Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult as the two heartless assassins are serviceable, but not much more than that. Gillen is good, but falls into cliché, playing an excellent version of the typical 90s action-thriller villain that would have gone to Gary Oldman, while Hoult comes across as flat and robotic. Although this is in some way the point of his character, he is the efficient, calculating and by-the-books member of the duo, it also serves to be his downfall, as at no point in the film does he feel truly threatening. Hoult has several moments of what seems to be doubt about the more extreme actions the two undertake and this is where his abilities finally shine through, but these are glimmers of facial acting, never fleshed out or explored any further.
The highlight of the cast, and probably of the film overall, is Medina Senghore as Allison, Ethan’s wife. She is fearless, fending off the assassins from the second she encounters them, despite being six months pregnant before setting off, towards a blazing wildfire, on horseback and armed with a deer rifle, to take them on and rescue Ethan, Conor and Hannah. Her performance features emotional depth and cold, hard heroism in equal measures and solidifies the film’s neo-western stylings. She serves as a phenomenal subversion on the typical ‘cowboy saving the day at the last minute’ She would not only hold her own, but absolutely crush, in an action-movie starring role. I can’t wait to see what roles the future holds for her.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is not the deepest or most thought-provoking film by any standard. However, it doesn’t need to be. I’m hesitant to use the cliché and often reductive trope of “this is a shut your brain off kind of movie.” Still, you won’t have time or want to think about any potential flaws in the film when it delivers its steady mainline of adrenaline. This is a film that needs to be seen on a big screen and is a perfect welcoming back to the cinema.