Those Who Wish Me Dead
Taylor Sheridan is an actor-turned-writer-turned-writer/director who I’ve had my eyes on since his screenwriting came to prominence in 2015 and 2016 with Sicario and Hell or High Water, the latter of which is one of my favorite films of the last two decades. He followed those up with his directorial debut in 2017, Wind River, which was unfairly swept under the rug due to its being a Weinstein-produced film at the worst possible time to be a Weinstein-produced film. But all three are burning, intense—at times very violent and difficult to watch—crime stories, driven by characters who reflect very real needs and concerns from our own lives. They’re often just ever so slightly off the beaten path of praise from the many more-widely-acclaimed and recognizable titles of the last several years, but they’re worth checking out.
It’s a shame then, that after such a solid streak of entertaining, compelling, and thought-provoking films (as well as a popular series on the Paramount Network, that seems to be singlehandedly keeping that brand afloat), Sheridan’s fourth major feature, Those Who Wish Me Dead, strives for very little, if any, of the deeper wrinkles typically associated with his stories.
As per yoozh for Sheridan, Those Who Wish Me Dead features a slim and straightforward plot, but doesn’t seem to take the time to add his typical depth of world and character. Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a smokejumper: someone who skydives into burned-out forests to find and rescue survivors from forest fires. She’s back on the job after an apparent hiatus—the result of a rescue that went south, resulting in the deaths of three children that she feels she could have saved. Still racked by the trauma and guilt, her probably-too-early psych evaluation has landed her a much less glorious position on the force: a lookout. She’s tasked with sitting alone in a fire tower to report sightings of smoke, as well as wind changes and any other important information that could help prevent or curb forest fires.
Meanwhile, a young boy named Connor (Finn Little) has been stranded in the forest after his father, a forensic accountant, came under the crosshairs of two shady individuals (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) for finding out too much. Hannah finds Connor and takes it on herself to get him to safety, not knowing who he’s running from or what they’ll do to get him. (Hint: They’ll shoot people and start forest fires, that’s what they’ll do.)
It’s a packed cast, as is common in Sheridan’s films, featuring all the above names as well as the always-great Jon Bernthal as a local sheriff and Medina Senghore, who is a wonderful new face (to me, anyway), as his survivalist wife. Unfortunately, the loaded ensemble isn’t given much to do. For starters, our two villains, Gillen and Hoult, are never given an actual motive, nor wholly distinct personalities from one another—for awhile, it seems Gillen is the sadistic one, while Hoult is the hesitant killer with a shred of humanity left in him, but that goes out the window pretty quickly. They briefly interface with their even more mysterious boss, Tyler Perry, who exists for one scene, does or says nothing of value to the story, and is never heard from again.
Bernthal and Senghore are the pair with the most compelling dynamic, as a wholesome couple, well-equipped for survival and expecting a child. But their moments in the spotlight are brief and only tangential to the “main” story of Hannah and Connor.
Hannah is probably the biggest disappointment of the bunch, as its clear Jolie is gung-ho about the character and the action she gets, but her traumatic past and overhanging guilt never really feel like anything more than surface motivation to risk life and limb for a random kid. We find out early on she’s a loose cannon and a foul-mouth, but that fades and gives way to a generic “protector” role once Connor is under her wing. Frankly, Finn Little might be the standout as Connor, a kid with the worst streak of luck I’ve seen in awhile. I mean, this kid sees a lot in this movie, and to the script’s (and Little’s) credit, we get a strong understanding of how much that weighs on a child’s psyche.
I remember watching Wind River, and thinking Sheridan’s direction was just slightly subpar in comparison to that of Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, who directed his first two screenplays. Having recently re-watched all of them, I’m not sure that’s fair; his confidence behind the camera might understandably not be quite on par with theirs, but it’s a really beautiful film with some compelling, unexpected choices. Those Who Wish Me Dead, however, mostly just looks boring. As the fire rages throughout the last act of the film, we get some really nice setups that look and feel incredible; and the smokejumpers’ bright red parachutes against the grey, washed-out backdrop of a dead forest? Awesome. But the rest of the film lacks any of the audiovisual personality or grit of his other films. It looks very blockbustery.
Blockbustery kind of works as a descriptor for the film in general. It’s a little more about action and thrills than anything else; it’s just unfortunate that Sheridan’s characteristically sparse, hard-hitting use of violence as punctuation is forgone in favor of a more typical Hollywood approach to action.
I’ve seen Those Who Wish Me Dead referred to as a “throwback” to the breezy action thrillers of the ’90s starring big names and big spectacle that played their plots fast and loose, but that feels like a bit of a copout. I mean, we never even find out why any of this happened. Literally, we never find out what Connor’s dad found out that got him in trouble, nor why it all matters to the villains so much that they have to gun down a dozen innocent people and set a forest ablaze. We don’t really know anything about Connor or Hannah beyond their traumas, and none of the actors are given the time or material to explore those spaces and embed details onto their characters, aside from the great work Bernthal and Senghore do with so little.
In the past, Sheridan’s stories have been lean on plot, but heavy on complex, realized worlds wherein these characters show themselves (and ourselves) to us. They’re often cautionary, sometimes political, and equal parts bleak and empathetic. They make social commentary and attempt to embed you in characters’ lives so that you understand their struggle. It’s just a bonus that they’re riveting thrillers at the same time. Those Who Wish Me Dead skips out on the main course almost entirely, and cuts corners on the “riveting” part. What we’re left with is a barebones, straightforward cat-and-mouse story, with an admittedly unique premise that ultimately doesn’t make a lot of sense or mean anything in the end.
The film is based on a novel of the same name, and author Michael Koryta helped pen the script alongside Sheridan and Charles Leavitt. If you ask me, the movie is a poor advertisement for the book, which I haven’t and don’t intend to read, and I have to wonder if Sheridan is better off sticking to his own stories and telling them himself. As a writer and director, he’s still on the rise, and I’ll continue to root for him. But this might be the first major bump on his way up.